It was a magical season for a senior-laden Alexandria boys soccer team this fall, but Tuesday in the Section 8AA semifinals just was not their night.
Rocori, with an 8-10 overall record, might have played its best game of the season in Alexandria as the Spartans won a 3-1 game to advance to Thursday’s section championship. The Cardinals had beaten the Spartans 2-0 in the regular season on Sept. 28.
Fourth-seeded Rocori will face second-seeded St. Cloud Tech for the section title after knocking off the top-seeded Cardinals in a game where the Spartans never trailed after taking a 1-0 lead on an Alexander Sonju goal less than 10 minutes into the first half.
“They played a really good defensive strategy,” Alexandria head coach Brandon Johnson said. “They put a lot of guys on us really quick, forcing our guys to not have a lot of opportunities to make passes. If they allow our team to hold the ball in the possession, they can’t turn, they can’t pass. There’s a lot of loose ends that need to be tightened up for quicker play, and we weren’t able to adjust in a reasonable amount of time to get some goals back.”
Rocori’s second and third goals came from Eduardo Alvarez Mendez in the 25th and 59th minutes. His first came on a penalty kick that made it 2-0 at halftime. Alvarez Mendez then converted a free kick in the second half from near the 20-yard line on a beautifully-placed ball over the hands of a lunging Ryan Meuwissen in goal for Alexandria.
With that early 2-0 lead, the Spartans could focus on limiting offensive opportunities for the Cardinals. Alexandria’s lone goal came in the 77th minute when the Sansted brothers connected one last time in an Alexandria uniform as Peter assisted Myles on the score.
“We play a pretty aggressive swing through the midfield side to side to open up space. Tonight, when they packed the middle, it shut down a lot of those opportunities, forcing us to play longer balls,” Johnson said. “When they start playing longer balls, if you have a lot of players in the middle, they’re able to run to it faster. We just weren’t able to adjust quickly from our traditional style of play, and kudos to them. They learned from the loss we put on them earlier in the season. They came back and adjusted their game plan, so you have to give it to a team that’s willing to make the adjustment and come out and fight. That’s what they did.”
Johnson gave his players some time to be among each other right after the game before delivering any kind of message himself. He knows how special this season was for a group that included 13 seniors on Tuesday's playoff roster. The Cardinals finished second in the Central Lakes Conference to undefeated Willmar (16-0) and as the top seed in a new-look Section 8AA.
“You look back on some of these things and these are still memories I remember from back in the day when I lost in the semis,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot there, so right now it’s just take it in. It’s OK to feel sad, it’s OK to feel hurt. The first big thing is to recognize those emotions, but coming out of this the message to the team is going to be that they’ve set an excellent tone. Not only in the conference, but in the section and across the state. There’s a lot of accolades that this team has put together. It’s unfortunate that you get knocked out in a really competitive game. All we can do is stand tall in what we’ve already accomplished when we look back. That’s some pretty incredible things.”
Those accolades include three seniors in Meuwissen, defender Colin Reilly and midfielder Thomas Klecker all earning Class AA all-state recognition.
It was a talented group of athletes who set a positive tone for this program that coaches hope can carry over into the future.
“These guys, they fight, they work together and they play together,” Johnson said. “We’ve seen a lot of guys blossom this year. A lot of guys really took the ‘I mentality’ out of the program and really focused on the team. They focused on, how do we win together? Over the years, it’s been a real joy and honor to coach them and watch them transition from an ‘I mentality’ that is so easy to have at the younger ages, to a ‘we mentality.’ That’s really where this group of guys and these seniors are going to stand out.”
(Thalen Zimmerman of the Echo Press contributed to this story)