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Soccer: New-look Alexandria boys team establishing its own identity after second straight shutout

The Cardinals avenged a loss against Rocori from last year's section tournament as Alexandria improved to 2-0 with a second straight 1-0 win to start the season.

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Alexandria's Cole Haabala, left, Otto Anderson, middle, and Jack Carlson celebrate Anderson's first-half goal against Rocori on Sept. 1, 2022. Haabala had an assist on the goal after sending in a perfectly-placed corner kick that Anderson scored on a header.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
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ALEXANDRIA — The Alexandria boys soccer team did not have to wait long into the 2022 season to see the team it last faced during a standout 2021 season for the program.

The Cardinals finished last fall with a 13-2-3 record, but Rocori was a little better in a 3-1 game in the Section 8AA semifinals. Both teams have shifted their focus to 2022 and the Cardinals got the better of the Spartans on Thursday night in a 1-0 final to improve to 2-0 and grab their first Section 8AA win of the young season.

“I was super motivated,” Alexandria senior defenseman Bryce Paffrath said. “We beat them in the regular season last year, and then they came out of nowhere and blew us out of the water and beat us. Give that to them. We came into this game looking at it as a good test knowing they were going to be a good team. Before the game, I came up with a speech and just said, ‘We all know what this game means to us. We know what we have to prove, and we got to go out and do it.’ We went out and did it today, which was super nice.”

The lone goal came on a corner kick where junior Cole Haabala sent in a perfectly-placed pass that sophomore Otto Anderson put in with a header to make it 1-0. That came with 25:30 left in the first half.

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Alexandria junior Cole Haabala hustles through three Rocori defenders to gain possession of the ball during the Cardinals Section 8AA game against the Spartans on Sept. 1, 2022.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

“Over the years, we’ve had it all planned. He takes it, I finish it or vice versa,” Anderson said of the connection with Haabala. “We got really good at him delivering it to me and me just getting something on it, whether it’s my head or any part of my body — my foot, my knee. I’m just trying to get it into the net. It gave me goosebumps.”

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The Cardinals outshot the Spartans 11-6 in the opening 40 minutes. Senior Tripp Shatek attacked the net aggressively and had three good looks to show for it, but Rocori’s Luis Lopez kept his team in the game with some nice saves.

It was a similar story early in the second half. Alexandria hit a post that almost doubled the lead, and Jack Carlson got a free kick from near the 15-yard line that went over the net. The Cardinals finished the night with a 19-10 shots-on-goal advantage.

Alexandria head coach Brandon Johnson said they have spent much of the first couple of games trying to figure out exactly what style of play this group can excel with. The Cardinals changed up formations a couple of times on Thursday before finding something that clicked.

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Alexandria senior Tripp Shatek races after a ball as Rocori keeper Luis Lopez scoops it up on Sept. 1, 2022.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

“Things just felt a little flat the first half, and even then they weren’t quite grooving so we made one more change midway through the second half to kind of a more standard formational play, which it sort of felt like they wanted to play,” Johnson said. “Now I feel a lot better. We saw a lot more passing, a lot more movement without the ball and just a better looking team. If that’s what they’re going to feel comfortable playing, then that’s what we’re going to do our best to coach to and try to make sure we set them up for the most success we can going forward.”

The defense made sure the one goal held up. The Cardinals did not give up many good looks at the net, and when they did, junior goalkeeper Grayson Grove was there to clean it up.

The Cardinals enter this season needing to replace a talented senior class that led the program to a 13-2-3 record in 2021.

Grove made a diving kick save to knock the ball away with a little more than five minutes left when Rocori’s Tayden Metzger got free in the center of the field near the 10-yard line. Grove made another diving play almost a minute later to stop a Spartan run at the net.

“Grayson is an outstanding goalkeeper,” Paffrath said. “I see him as one of the best in the state, probably. He’s just a freak athlete. Those saves were kind of what saved us the game.”

Grove is a standout power forward in basketball at about 6-feet, 8-inches. He started as a sophomore for the Cardinals’ 23-6 team last winter, and spent this summer playing with one of the best AAU programs in the state with DI Minnesota.

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Alexandria junior goalkeeper Grayson Grove sends the ball down the field during the Cardinals game against Rocori on Sept. 1, 2022. Grove got the shutout of the Spartans and made a couple of key saves late to help the Cardinals hold onto the 1-0 win.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Grove came on late in the season in soccer last fall to earn time in goal with senior Ryan Meuwissen also helping to anchor that team. Johnson said Grove has worked hard with goalie coach Sean Foster, and the Cardinals are happy to have him at the back end of this defense.

“Last year, we saw a lot of great things from Grayson,” Johnson said. “We had some really great candidates going into sections last year, and Grayson just eked ahead a little bit. To see him come back out and talk to him and know that he’s very passionate, he’s excited to be here. He told us he wants to be here both years. He’s been doing really well. He’s committed, and we’re really excited about that.”

Johnson likes the athleticism of this group as a whole and the Cardinals will spend the beginning part of this season working on figuring out how the pieces all fit together. Johnson praised the way junior Jestin Masteller pursued the ball hard all night.

Grove and Anderson are two of many other players who have an opportunity to step into bigger roles this fall, and both looked comfortable doing that on Thursday.

“I’m completely comfortable,” Anderson said. “Everyone on this team has each others back. We’re not a team that takes each other down. We’re a building up team, so I don’t feel any discomfort coming into this role. Just taking over what needs to be taken over. I’m willing to do that and willing to do it well.”

Alexandria has yet to give up a goal this season after also shutting out Fergus Falls in a 1-0 game during the season opener on Aug. 30.

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Alexandria senior Jack Carlson gets to a loose ball between two Rocori players on Sept. 1, 2022. Carlson is back as a senior this season with plenty of varsity experience looking to help lead the Cardinals to another winning season.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

“We knew coming in that we have to find our team because this is a whole new team,” Paffrath said. “We have to find us. We’re not last year, we’re this year, and so far with these two games, especially this game, we’re proving that we’re finding who we are as a team, what we want to play like and who we want to be. I think we’re going to go far this year.”

One area Johnson feels will play a role in how far this group can go is how well they establish a positive culture. Each team has its own identity. Through practice and now two games, the head coach has liked what he has seen in that sense.

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“I’ve been really happy with these guys,” Johnson said. “You’ve got hockey players, basketball players, dedicated soccer players who are going on to play college. We’ve got a really mixed bag. Last year was some really great athletes, but those guys had been playing soccer together for years. Some of these guys have only been playing for four years. Out captains have done an awesome job encouraging the guys to get together afterwards. They’ve been on the lake, they’ve gone out to dinner, they’ve done some really good stuff to build that. If we can continue that momentum, hopefully that will translate onto the field.”

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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