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Strong offseason has Cardinals excited for this fall with a senior-laden group

Creating depth along the offensive and defensive lines is a point of emphasis as Alexandria tries to build on a .500 record from 2020.

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Alexandria's Kelly Johnson, left, hauls in a long pass in front of Gavin Ashmore during a drill in the Cardinals' opening day of practice on Aug. 16, 2021. Both Johnson and Ashmore are part of a strong nucleus of returning players who give this team plenty of experience to work with going into the season opener at Hutchinson on Sept. 2. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

The Alexandria football program went through a relatively normal offseason in terms of workouts, and it included a good showing at a full team camp at the University of Minnesota-Duluth this summer.

The Cardinals won that full tackle, 11-on-11 camp that included some big schools like Apple Valley, Elk River and others. For a senior-laden team coming off a .500 season, that success feels noteworthy as they look to put together an even better record this fall.

“Going in and playing some of those big-name towns can really up our confidence for our team as a whole,” senior linebacker/running back Wyatt Odland said. “With all the pieces we have coming back, we feel really good about it, but that just kind of reassures us if we go into those camps and do really good too. It builds our whole team morale.”

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Wyatt Odland, right, facing, and Will Heydt (3) work through a drill during the first day of practice for the Alexandria football team on Aug. 16, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

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In addition to playing other sports, many of these athletes got in the weight room and went about a more normal summer after the pandemic during 2020 did not allow for that. It’s made them smarter football players and better athletes, head coach Mike Empting said.

The Cardinals got a chance to play Moorhead in a second-round Section 8-5A playoff game on Nov. 20, 2020 before the season ended. The Spuds were one of the better teams to come out of Alexandria’s section in recent years, going 7-0 and outscoring opponents by almost 40 points per game in the process.

Moorhead lost a lot of seniors from that group, but the Spuds are a program that has proven they can reload. Bemidji (5-2 last year), Sartell-St. Stephen, St. Cloud Apollo and Brainerd all join the Cardinals in trying to compete atop the section.

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Alexandria's Teagan Pfeffer, right, just gets a hand on the ball to tip away a pass intended for Turner Haar during practice on Aug. 16, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

“Just going off of last year, we got so much experience,” Alexandria senior Teagan Pfeffer said. “We’re coming back with I think 20 starters. With the talent we have, I think we’ll be able to stack up against some of the powerhouses from last year. I’m just really excited to see what we can do because we have a lot of talent on our roster.”

Top pieces to work with

Pfeffer (WR/CB) and Odland join fellow senior Will Heydt (RB/OLB) as captains for Alexandria looking to lead the way. All three were part of a big junior class last year filled with guys who played a primary role on varsity, some for the first time.

Heydt was Alexandria’s second-leading rusher with 378 yards and six touchdowns, along with being a key piece defensively with Odland at linebacker. Heydt played big down the stretch for the Cardinals as Alexandria’s all-time career leader in rushing, 2021 graduate Nolan Morical, battled through injury to finish the year with 589 yards and nine touchdowns.

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Alexandria senior Will Heydt runs through a drill during the first day of practice on Aug. 16, 2021. Heydt will be one of the primary ball carriers, along with his duties defensively at outside linebacker, for the Cardinals this fall season. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

“Nolan was a great role model for me,” Heydt said. “Once he had those injuries, he helped me a lot. He talked to me and kind of guided me through it. I think I’m ready to take that primary position as I did half of the season last year. We have a great line. We’re a little bit undersized, but we’re going to have some dogs up there.”

The Cardinals have one of the top receivers and fastest players in the state to get the ball to in Kristen Hoskins now as a senior. The future University of Minnesota athlete was aided a bit with the wind at his back, but he was hand-timed at 4.27 seconds in the 40-yard dash on Monday.

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Alexandria senior Kristen Hoskins catches a pass during the first day of practice for the Cardinals on Aug. 16, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

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“We’re going to put a lot of pressure on defenses,” Empting said. “If teams are going to give Kristen the attention he deserves, we are going to have other guys who will be able to catch footballs and run with the ball and do those things that will hurt defenses.”

Empting said guys like Pfeffer, Gavin Ashmore, Zach Gundberg and Kelly Johnson all have the athleticism and size to form a deep receiver group.

“We’re going to block the run for Will, and with Kristen, he’s going to get a lot of attention,” Pfeffer said. “I think we have a receiving core that can take advantage of those 1-on-1 matchups. It will even make Kristen’s game better. If he succeeds, we’re going to succeed, and when we succeed, he’ll succeed because it can take the emphasis off of him.”

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Alexandria senior quarterback Carter Steffensmeier releases a pass during practice on Aug. 16, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

Carter Steffensmeier also has the comfort of being in his second season as Alexandria’s starting quarterback now. He threw for 929 yards (68-of-121 passing), nine touchdowns and nine interceptions last season as he looks to take another step forward.

“The biggest thing is just decision making,” Empting said of what he wants to see out of Steffensmeier this year. “He’s a good athlete. He’s shown us he had a great summer running the ball, throwing the ball. Now he’s just got to be consistent with the decision making part of it.”

Depth needed

The Cardinals have top-end talent to work with. What Empting wants to see is if players who have not yet produced on varsity can step up and add depth to this roster.

Perhaps nowhere is that more important than on the offensive and defensive lines. Gunner Anderson and Carter Moen are two all-district linemen from 2020 who are key pieces to replace.

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Alexandria's Ethan Hoppe, right, and Dakota Giese (52) take a water break during a hot opening day of practice for teams across the state in the Minnesota State High School League on Aug. 16, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

Empting believes in the guys he has trying to fill holes left by graduation along the offensive and defensive lines. But many of those upperclassmen will be asked to play both ways.

“It’s about who is going to come up, maybe a junior who will work their way up and give us some depth right now,” Empting said. “We’ve got Joey Lanoux and Calen Piepho and Clayton Birdsall, a guy who didn't play for us last year but is out this year and looking great.

“We have those guys who we know had a great summer and have been really solid for us. Zander Homelvig is another one who played defensive line a lot last year. Now we’re looking at him for two sides of the ball, and we just need some of our younger guys to step up and give us some depth at those positions. That’s going to be our challenge.”

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From front to back, Alexandria linemen Joey Lanoux, Maxton Meyer, Jordan Nicholson and Dakota Giese work through a drill during practice for the Cardinals on Aug. 16, 2021. (Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press)

How that comes together could go a long way in determining the level of success Alexandria has. Players and coaches feel good about the talent on this team. Now it’s about putting the pieces all together as the Cardinals head to Hutchinson for the season opener on Sept. 2.

“We’ve been putting in a lot of work this summer as a team. We all bonded during captains’ week doing a lot of really fun stuff together,” Odland said. “As the season goes on, we just need to come together as a team. That’s the biggest thing. We know we have the pieces, and we have the athletes. If we put it all together into one team, we can have a really good year.”

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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