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Robbinsdale Cooper rallies in the second half to edge Alexandria in the final minutes of the state quarterfinals

The Cardinals look back on a season where they grew together every week and turned a 1-4 start into a memorable run that finished at the Class 5A state tournament.

Alexandria players and coaches stayed on the Osseo High School football field long after the game went final in a 21-17 loss to Robbinsdale Cooper in the Class 5A state quarterfinals on Saturday afternoon.

The snow that started in the second half was still coming down as players, family members and coaches shared hugs and tears.

“I’m just thinking about an amazing four years,” an emotional Kristen Hoskins said. “This sport has taught me how to be a man, how to be a teammate, how to be a leader. It’s my heart…(I’ll remember) being raised into a man. (Head coach) Mike (Empting) has taught me a lot. I love playing this sport.”

This team finished with a 6-6 record this season. There were some ups and downs, but it was evident by the emotion shown on the field after the game how much they came together.

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“It was a great run. We did some great things,” Empting said. “We came a long ways together. We grew up together. It’s a special group, absolutely.”

The Cardinals almost extended that run to U.S. Bank Stadium for the state semifinals. They led 17-7 at halftime after a Myles Sansted 27-yard field goal as time expired.

Hoskins, a senior receiver, was dynamic again with a 9-yard touchdown catch on a fade from senior quarterback Carter Steffensmeier and a near 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He caught 9 balls for almost 90 yards in his final game in an Alexandria uniform before moving on to the Big Ten with the University of Minnesota next season.

The Hawks completed the comeback by outscoring Alexandria 14-0 after halftime. Their resurgence showed right after the break as they scored on their opening drive, culminated by a 2-yard rushing touchdown from quarterback Joseph Russell.

“We had a great week of practice,” Hoskins said. “We were working off of that and had a great first half. Second half, they just outplayed us.”

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The biggest turning point came early in the fourth quarter when the Hawks' Josh Gonleh jumped on a fumble at the Alexandria 2-yard line. The ball had to exchange hands a couple of times to get back to Steffensmeier for what was set up to be a screen pass.

The hope for Alexandria was to get a big chunk of yardage by surprising the Hawks after Robbinsdale Cooper had held the Cardinals’ offense down through the third quarter.

“We’ve worked on that, we’ve done that,” Empting said. “We just got to go out there and execute it. It’s a little bit slippery ball. I felt good about the call. It was the right time for it. A couple of misdirections and was going to end up being a screen once Carter got the ball back. We were just trying to get out of that (field-position) hole there, and we felt like we had them set up for it.”

The Hawks secured the turnover, and Andre Reese ran in the touchdown one play later to give the Hawks their first lead with 10:14 left at 21-17.

It was a big bounce-back series for the Hawks after they thought they had taken the lead on their prior offensive possession. Russell threw a strike for 35 yards to David Connors into the end zone.

One official called it a touchdown. Another said incomplete. They got together and ultimately ruled the ball hit the turf as Alexandria turned the Hawks over on downs on the very next play.

“We knew it was a bad call, but we couldn’t do anything about it,” Russell said. “It got overturned, so we went on the sideline and said, ‘Let’s go. We’re not down. We got this. Let’s go put it in the end zone.’ The defense got a big stop and we put it in the end zone the next drive.”

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Alexandria’s offense had one last good chance after Cooper took the lead as the Cardinals went the length of the field on its ensuing possession. That included a 24-yard, 4th-and-2 connection from Steffensmeier to Teagan Pfeffer, but the drive stalled at the Cooper 8-yard line.

On 4th-and-1, Steffensmeier could not control the snap under center as the Hawks jumped on the ball to take over with 5:45 remaining. Robbinsdale Cooper ran off more than 5 minutes of clock before giving Alexandria the ball back as they pieced together three first downs.

On a 3rd-and-7, Russell faked the handoff and rolled back to the left to gain 11 yards on his own for a first down with about 1:20 left. Russell finished with a team-high 60 yards rushing to go with 175 yards passing with a touchdown and an interception.

“It was smart plays by him,” Empting said of Russell. “He used his arm when he had to. He used his legs when he needed to at the right times. He’s a good athlete, smart player.”

The Cardinals did force a punt after that Russell first down on 3rd-and-7, but not until there was 21 seconds left. The Hawks defense limited Alexandria to less than 100 yards after halftime, and they held strong on Alexandria’s final three plays to never let the Cardinals mount a threat.

Robbinsdale Cooper’s two losses this year came to Waconia (4-6) and Holy Angels (8-3) in the first half of the season. Since that loss to Holy Angels on Sept. 24, the Hawks have won seven straight games and will try to extend that in the semifinals where they play Mahtomedi on Nov. 19 at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Empting and the Alexandria coaches gave their players the chance to huddle up together alone one last time after the game was over. Once the huddle broke, Empting went around and hugged his players and talked to them individually.

The Cardinals were 1-4 after five weeks this season. Instead of accepting a lost year, players rallied all the way to the program’s 11th state-tournament appearance. The process it took to get there is what Empting will remember most.

“It was how we grew together,” he said. “I guess it’s one of those things where you have to be on the inside to see, but at the start of the season we just didn’t know how things were going to go. Players have to come together as a team in order for it to work.

“We weren’t sure about that. We knew we had the athletes, the players, the schemes in place, but were the guys going to come together? They grew together in a big way. It shows out here right now the way those guys came together and were playing for one another. That’s what this game’s all about.”

ROBBINSDALE COOPER 21, ALEXANDRIA 17

SCORING - FIRST QUARTER - Alexandria - Carter Steffensmeier 9-yard pass to Kristen Hoskins; Myles Sansted PAT (7-0)

SECOND QUARTER - Robbinsdale Cooper - Joseph Russell 23-yard pass to Terrence Matthews; Leo Garcia-Puok PAT (7-7); Alexandria - Kristen Hoskins 85-yard kickoff return; Myles Sansted PAT (14-7 Alexandria); Alexandria - Myles Sansted 27-yard field goal (17-7)

THIRD QUARTER - Robbinsdale Cooper - Joseph Russell 2-yard run; Leo Garcia-Puac PAT (17-14 Alexandria)

FOURTH QUARTER - Robbinsdale Cooper - Andre Reese 2-yard run; Leo Garcia-Puac PAT (21-17 Robbinsdale Cooper)

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
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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