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Football: Brainerd brings talented run attack into Alexandria's homecoming

The Warriors' Damien Bentho had 44 carries, 226 yards and two touchdowns in leading his team over Bemidji last week.

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Alexandria sophomore lineman Joe Martinson, 65, and a couple of his teammates take a knee right before kickoff to get ready against Sauk Rapids-Rice on Sept. 16, 2022. Martinson and the Cardinals will welcome in a 3-2 Brainerd team for the Cardinals' homecoming game on Friday night at 7 p.m.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
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ALEXANDRIA — The Alexandria football team will not get many breaks in its schedule this season, and the Cardinals have another good test on Friday night when longtime rival Brainerd comes to town for Alexandria’s homecoming game.

The Warriors are a Class 6A program coming to AAHS riding a three-game winning streak after victories over Moorhead, Sartell-St. Stephen and Bemidji the last few weeks.

Brainerd won its rivalry game with Bemidji on Sept. 23 to reclaim the Babe’s Bell trophy that these two teams play for. The Warriors’ losses came against Andover, a 2-2 team ranked 10th in Class 5A in the QRF through Minnesota-scores.net, and at Coon Rapids (2-3) by one point on Aug. 26.

“The biggest thing is they’re a run-first team,” Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said of Brainerd. “They want to run the ball first, but they do throw the ball fairly effectively. They are an odd-front defense where their linebackers are very active. That Moorhead game was a come-from-behind victory. They scored three touchdowns very late in that game, so they’re a team that is feeling like they’re never out of it. Very good running back, a quarterback who runs well and is also a very capable thrower, and they have a very nice wide receiver too.”

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Brainerd's Damien Bentho runs the ball against Bemidji on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. Bentho racked up 226 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries in leading the Warriors (3-2) over the Lumberjacks.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Brainerd running back Damien Bentho had a huge game in leading his team over Bemidji in a 19-7 final . Bentho ran the ball 44 times for 226 yards and two touchdowns. He had well over half of his team’s yards as the Warriors outgained the Lumberjacks 337-129 in wet conditions.

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“He’s just a tough runner,” Empting said of Bentho. “He’s a hard tackle, and he’s not running the ball like that without some good work being done up front. Their offensive line has really come along here as I’ve watched them in their last couple of games. They’re solid up front, and they give him room to run. Then he’s patient behind those guys and he has great balance.”

Alexandria (1-3) is trying to get back into the win column after losses to Sauk Rapids-Rice (4-0) and Moorhead (3-1) the last couple weeks.

This whole season has been about making progress with a young team for the Cardinals. Empting saw flashes of progress in last week’s 34-14 loss at Moorhead . Alexandria got a 37-yard punt return for a touchdown from senior Kelly Johnson, who also caught 10 more balls for 94 yards. But losing the turnover battle, and giving up a few too many big plays defensively was ultimately too much to overcome.

“We would have stretches on both sides of the ball where we did things really well, but then have a mistake or two at a critical juncture that took us out of it,” Empting said. “We are making progress and moving in the right direction. I think our next biggest challenge is playing consistently enough where we’re eliminating those mistakes.”

The Cardinals should feel the support of a big homecoming crowd on Friday. Empting is curious to see how his players respond to what should be a good atmosphere at the end of a fun week for the kids.

“Many of them haven’t experienced that homecoming crowd,” Empting said. “It will be interesting to see how they respond. I’m hoping that provides them with some energy and feeling of support rather than a little stage fright. But actually, our first couple home games have been very well attended. We’ve had really good crowds, so we’ve been in front of those already. This week at practice, our guys have been very focused. They are enjoying the homecoming activities, which is a very important part of the high school experience. At the same time, when we’ve been out there it’s been a great week of practice.”

Friday will be another chance for the Cardinals to take a step forward, but that growth will have to come against another good team. That’s just a product of who Alexandria plays each season. Elk River (4-0, ranked No. 1 in the QRF among 5A teams), a non-district and non-section team, is coming to Alexandria on Oct. 14.

Empting wants his guys to embrace playing these types of teams.

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“Our goal for this program is to have ourselves among that group,” he said. “This is where we belong, and when we have a year like we’re having this year, for the kids coming up in our program in 9th grade or 10th grade, they just have to realize that this is where we belong. This is our competition, and as a program, we have to rise to this. We have to do the things that we need to do individually and as a program to be competitive in that environment against that competition because that’s where we’re at.”

Alexandria area football games for Sept. 30

Alexandria (1-3) vs Brainerd (3-2), 7 p.m.

B-E (2-2) vs Ortonville (2-2), 7 p.m.

Parkers Prairie (1-3) at Osakis (3-1), 7 p.m.

Minnewaska (0-4) vs Rockford (2-2), 7 p.m.

WCA (3-1) at Crookston (2-2), 6 p.m.

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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