Football: New faces get their chance to lead Alexandria
The Cardinals like their talent, but know reaching their potential may take time after so many seniors played key roles a year ago.
ALEXANDRIA — Each new school year in high school sports is an opportunity for a new group of athletes to make their mark on a varsity roster. There will be many of those opportunities available on this year’s Alexandria football team.
The Cardinals had 24 seniors on the roster last fall. Many of those players filled key roles in helping Alexandria win the Section 8-5A championship .
Two-year starter Carter Steffensmeier has to be replaced at quarterback after throwing for 2,541 yards and 25 touchdowns on 212-of-347 passing (61.1%) and rushing for a team-leading 557 yards and 12 touchdowns on 127 carries.
Kristen Hoskins is in his first year with the University of Minnesota football team after catching 83 balls for 1,185 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Eleven total seniors with last year’s team earned either all-district or honorable-mention all-district honors. They have moved on, and now it’s up to a new group of players to make their mark.
“We have the talent and ability to go just as far, if not farther than we did last year,” senior offensive and defensive lineman Jordan Nicholson said. “We just got a lot of young talent. If everyone works together, comes together like a family like this Cardinal football program is all about, I think we can get it.”
Nicholson joins Bryr Homelvig (LB), Kelly Johnson (WR/S) and Jaxon Schoenrock (WR/CB/S) as the four senior captains.
All four players and head coach Mike Empting talked from the first day of practice on Monday about how they like the talent of this group. The key will be getting everyone comfortable at the varsity level after seniors played in so many roles last year.
“You just got to be patient and trust the coaches and trust the process,” Homelvig said. “You’re going to start off rusty and not knowing the position very well, but you got to stick with it. At the beginning of (last) year, I had no idea what I was doing at linebacker. With Wyatt Odland and some of the good leaders above me, I figured it out pretty quickly. That’s kind of what I want to bring to the team is good leadership.”
That importance of leadership is something these captains said they took from last year as Alexandria brushed off some close losses through a 3-5 regular season to beat Sartell, Moorhead and Bemidji on the way to the section title.
“Those seniors last year paved the path for us and showed us what we needed to do to be successful and the work that needs to be put in,” Johnson said. “For us, it’s continuing to be those good leaders and showing that even when there’s adversity, we got to keep pushing through. We know we have a lot of talent on this team.”
The offensive line, defensive backfield and quarterback were areas hit hardest by graduation. The Cardinals lost an electric piece to the offense in Hoskins, but they do return some good building blocks at the skill positions.
Johnson was an honorable-mention All-Section 8-5A player as a junior. He caught 29 balls for 309 yards and a touchdown last fall, while Schoenrock added 30 catches for 340 yards and four touchdowns. Walker Hennen was also the team’s third-leading rusher as a sophomore.
“Last year, me and Kelly learned a lot from Kristen and Zach (Gundberg),” Schoenrock said. “They’re good leaders and helped us through everything. Kelly kind of had experience, but last year I was brand new to playing receiver. They taught me a lot, just basic stuff and then more experienced stuff. I think if we use what they told us and use it to help these younger guys, they all have the skill. They’re just new to it, and new to this playbook so we have to transfer what we know to them, and it should all work out in the end.
Who is at QB?
The question of who will be throwing the ball to players like Schoenrock and Johnson is still being figured out.
Evan Moore is a junior who threw one pass on varsity last season — a 5-yard completion. He is in the mix to take on the starting role, and Empting said sophomore Chase Thompson is also battling for that spot, along with Schoenrock maybe being in the mix to play some quarterback too.
“We’re just going to have to see how that all shakes out in that spot,” Empting said. “Carter was there for us for two years and was a warrior. We’re going to see who’s going to fit into that spot.”
Whoever starts in the season opener on Sept. 2 against Hutchinson at home is not going to be asked to be Steffensmeier. Steffensmeier took over at quarterback as a junior and grew into a player who was capable of leading a team to the state tournament with both his arm and his legs.
Whoever gets the ball on opening night will be starting that process in their own career.
“It’s kind of going to depend on who’s there,” Empting said when asked what will be expected of his quarterback. “I think the biggest thing is that whoever is there, they’re probably not going to have a lot of varsity experience. At the beginning, it’s going to be not taking on too much. Probably more just manage the game. Be safe. That type of thing until they get comfortable with the offense being theirs.”
At their best by season’s end
Growth is exactly what Empting wants to see from this team all season.
At the beginning of practice, that means guys getting comfortable in Alexandria’s offensive and defensive system at a more physical level.
“The young kids, sophomores, it’s a big jump from ninth grade to 10th grade,” Empting said. “There’s a lot of terminology and adjustments. We just want to see them picking up the system. Even with our juniors who are maybe going to be playing a lot this year that didn’t play a lot last year, it’s the same thing. Then the physical nature of the game. We want to see them start embracing that part of it and show they’ll be able to compete at the varsity level that way.”
There are sophomores who will see time on varsity, but Empting knows that too will be a process. The hope is gradual reps will have them ready to take on more regular snaps by season’s end.
“When you look at the competition we play, it’s the who’s who of outstate football,” Empting said. “Moorhead, Bemidji, Brainerd — Elk River is on our schedule. We have to be able to rely on our seniors and juniors to step up…We’re going to ease those (sophomores) into it so that hopefully by the end of the season, they give us a lot of depth where maybe they can be regular-down players on one side of the ball or the other. Then that frees up some of those other guys to be on just one side of the ball.”
Monday’s first day of practice was step one in a process for this team. Empting wants players to embrace that.
“We’re absolutely going to go out there and try to get every game, but also recognize that we have a lot of inexperience out there and we’re going to have to grow as we go along,” Empting said. “I’m going to look for continued development and that by the end of the season we’re competitive. By competitive, I mean we’re back in that section championship game, we’re back fighting to go to the state tournament.”
Moorhead and Bemidji both had good teams a year ago with talented underclassmen. They may be the pre-season favorites in an 8-5A field that includes Alexandria, Sartell, Sauk Rapids-Rice and St. Cloud Tech.
“I have no doubt that we’re going to be as good or better than last year,” Homelvig said. “But being that we have such a young team, such an eager team to play football, our main goal as captains is making this team better than it was when we entered the (program).”