Alexandria girls enter the state track meet vying for multiple titles

The Alexandria girls’ track and field team has some top-level talent that is ready to be on display at the state meet that runs this Friday and Saturday at Hamline University.

Head coach Meghan Orgeman-Crumb said the goal for this group as a team is to finish higher than it did a year ago. Alexandria finished 12th in 2013. This year, the Cardinals feature a 4×100 relay team of Karly Betterman, Tayler Kaufman, Mady Urman and Wensia Johnson with the third fastest seed time in the state. They also have individuals who are well known for being some of the best at their events in Minnesota.

“This year I hope to finish much closer to the top,” Orgeman-Crumb said of the team point standings. “It always feels good to square up against much larger schools and show the talent that our girls have worked hard to showcase at the state meet.”

Alexandria’s Wensia Johnson (middle) and Mady Urman (second from right) race toward the finish line in the 100-meter dash at the section meet. Johnson and Urman finished first and second at the 8AA meet and will both be running at state this weekend. (Contributed photo by Doug Hasz)

Many of the individuals Alexandria has are no strangers to the limelight of big events. Johnson is well established as one of the top sprinters in Minnesota after winning the 200-meter dash state title as an eighth grader in 2012. She also has two runner-up finishes in the 100-meter dash and one second-place finish in the long jump over the past two seasons.

Johnson told Blaze Fugina of the Echo Press at Alexandria’s home meet on May 13 that she had been dealing with a quad injury earlier this season. She wasn’t happy with her times in the sprint races up to that point, but she is coming off section titles in the 100 and 200 in times of 12.14 and 25.21, respectively.

Johnson might have to go faster than that to win a state title in both events this weekend. There’s no doubt that she’s capable and that none of the talented sprinters at the AA level are taking her lightly after the last couple seasons.

The Hasz sisters are two of the favorites to win both the distance events in St. Paul. The Alexandria sophomores have parlayed their great season in cross country from this past fall into the best track seasons of their careers to this point.

Sophomores Bethany (left) and Megan Hasz run through the finish line during the 1,600-meter run at the 8AA meet. (Contributed photo by Doug Hasz)

Bethany enters the state meet with the fastest seed time of 4:56.10 in the 1,600 run, while Megan is second in 4:56.17. Shaelyn Sorenson (4:56.52) of Tartan and Jenna Truedson (4:58.30) of Bemidji are also right there in the running to capture a title.

The top three seed times in the 3,200-meter run read the same. Bethany enters with the fastest time of 10:33.26. Megan is right behind in 10:35.77, while Sorensen is also near the top after a section time of 10:35.85.

“At the state meet, it always comes down to who is ready to step up that day,” Orgeman-Crumb said. “We’ve seen remarkable things happen each year at state, and I hope that the girls have some of their own remarkable moments.”

The second-year Cardinals head coach said all these girls have trained hard throughout the season to run their best at season’s end. Personal or season bests at the state meet are the expectation if all goes according to plan.

Where that will place them among the state leaders is different for every athlete. With so much top-level talent, it should make for an exciting couple of days for Alexandria athletes at Hamline University.

“The focus is different for every athlete,” Orgeman-Crumb said. “A goal that they all share is to run or jump a personal best. How they end up placing is tied to many different variables, including the level of completion in each event. I would love for all of our athletes to make it into finals and of course for a few of our athletes to walk away as state champions.”

Megan and Bethany Hasz will kick off the state meet on Friday when they join the rest of the 3,200-meter field for that finals race at 9 a.m. Fugina will be covering that race and all of Saturday’s finals, so check the Echo Press website throughout the weekend.

 

 

Additional info and photos from Alexandria’s game at the state tournament

The Alexandria boys’ basketball team made sure to point out that they weren’t satisfied with just getting to the state tournament, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t appreciate the experience after a loss to Austin on Wednesday afternoon.

Alexandria’s Joe Gorghuber works his way around an Austin defender during the Class AAA quarterfinals on Wednesday afternoon. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

The Packers were the second-place team in Class AAA last season and have three seniors in Bret Lukes, Ajuda Nywesh and Zach Wessels who all averaged right around 14 points per game this year. All three of those guys carried the load for Austin on Wednesday as Wessels had 23, Nywesh added 15 and Lukes finished with 10.

“They’re pretty athletic,” Alexandria’s Brandon Bistodeau said. “It’s pretty tough to stop them. There’s not much you can do.”

They ultimately proved to be the difference for Austin as the rest of the Packers team combined to score just 13 points. You can read my entire story on yesterday’s game and the reaction from Bistodeau, John Vogeler and head coach Forrest Witt on our website.

Here is more of what they had to say on their season and yesterday’s game, along with a bunch of photos. Williams Arena is always a fun place to shoot pictures with the elevated floor providing some pretty cool angles.

Junior Kris Setterstrom finds an open teammate as the Cardinals try to find an opening in Austin’s 1-2-2 zone on Wednesday. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

*  Getting a chance to play on the Williams Arena court is something many kids in Minnesota dream of and the players on this team didn’t take that for granted.

“It was awesome,” Bistodeau said. “It’s a dream as a kid. We finally got to play on this court. At the end of the day it’s just a game, but it was an exciting moment.”

* The Cardinals knew that Austin was going to run a 1-2-2 zone press pretty much the whole game, and it took a little while for them to get comfortable against it.

Alexandria had four turnovers in the first three minutes and didn’t score until 4 minutes, 59 seconds into the game when Vogeler hit a three from the top of the key.

“We practiced it all week so we knew it was coming,” Bistodeau said. “It was a little tough to get used to, but we got used to it. It slowed us down a little bit.”

The Cardinals broke the zone in the second half by being aggressive pushing the ball up the court. They got a few buckets in transition and it helped lead to a 21-6 run that pulled them to within one point at 43-42 with 8 minutes, 24 seconds left.

Alexandria head coach Forrest Witt watches his team run through the offense during the second half against the Packers. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

“They’ve played it all year and they play it very well,” Witt said of Austin’s zone. “You give them credit for that, but our JV got us prepared and I thought we did attack it pretty well. We had some opportunities that we missed, and I thought in transition we did a good job. Not a great job, but we wanted to push the basketball hard and not let them get set up in their 1-2-2.”

* Austin’s senior guard Ajuda Nywesh got hot in the first half on his way to 11 points by the break. He hit three triples in the half and showed off his handle and athleticism in finding ways to get off his shot.

Nywesh is 6’1″ and has a thin frame, so the Cardinals wanted to be a little more physical while guarding him in the second half. Vogeler drew that challenge and helped his team hold Nywesh to four points after the break.

John Vogeler goes up for a layup against Austin’s Ajuda Nywesh. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

“We just try to stay together,” Vogeler said. “We’re switching a lot of ball screens out there, and we went through the game plan. We know he’s a shooter but sometimes great players make plays and you tip your hat off to him. I just tried to get more physical with him. I had two fouls so I couldn’t put myself at risk and get into foul trouble, but yeah, just try to be more physical with him.”

* Witt was happy with the way his team responded after being down by 16 early in the second half on Wednesday.

The Cardinals’ answer to that 8-0 run by the Packers was a 21-6 run of their own. They had two possessions with a chance to take the lead in a 43-42 game that resulted in a missed jumper and a turnover. Vogeler said the team was confident that they could get over the hump at that point, but that Austin wasn’t going to be a team that would fold down the stretch.

Chase Kohler searches for an opening during the second half on Wednesday. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

“I think everybody felt confident but we knew they were going to make another run after that,” Vogeler said. “Everybody here is good, so you can’t just shut them down. We knew they were going to make some plays when we were down one. I think that’s what they did. We just couldn’t pull it off.”

* The loss on Wednesday marked the end of the careers for four senior starters in Bistodeau, Vogeler, Chase Kohler and David Krivanek.

Witt praised the effort of those guys and how they helped the program take the next step this season.

Senior David Krivanek goes between the defense of the Packers’ Gach Gach (left) and Noah Brehmer during the closing minutes of the AAA quarterfinals. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

“Your seniors are always going to be the guys you look to to lead your basketball team and those guys certainly did that,” Witt said. “They left their mark on the basketball program. We tell the kids, it’s bigger than any one individual, it’s bigger than any one group of seniors. But they can be proud and happy of the job they did in being the first team to get us to state here in 12 years and in our tenure as coaches. We’re extremely proud of them and what the future of Alexandria basketball is.”

 

Steidl goes from running back in Alex to defensive tackle at NDSU

Alexandria senior Aaron Steidl has a sheet above his door at home that has two goals written out on it – to play Division I football and to do that on scholarship.

The first one of those has been crossed off his list after signing with three-time FCS national champion North Dakota State University on Wednesday. The latter will be something he works toward over the coming years. Steidl committed to the Bison as a preferred walk-on over Division II scholarship offers from Bemidji State University and the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Aaron Steidl takes a breather between plays during a game against Sartell-St. Stephen from this past fall. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

How he got to the point has been quite a transformation. Steidl started his varsity career in Alexandria as a running back that weighed 175 pounds as a sophomore. Almost three years later, he has transformed his body to where the coaches at NDSU recruited him as a defensive tackle.

“If I look back on my sophomore year, I would never think I would be a defensive tackle,” Steidl said on Wednesday. “I weighed 175 my sophomore year as running back. I remember the first game against Willmar, I was so pumped because I got a start and I’m running with Stephan Morical and all those other backs. Then two weeks later, [head coach Mike] Empting moved me to defensive line telling me I was too slow to play running back. It was a downer at the time.”

Steidl even played quarterback on the freshmen team during his 9th-grade season. From quarterback to running back, tight end, defensive end, interior lineman – Steidl has played all over the field for the Cardinals.

“Taking handoffs as a sophomore, to tight end as a junior, and because of necessity, he played interior offensive line for us this year and played defensive end for us,” Empting said. “He’s a football player. He did a lot of things for us.”

Life as a running back is a little more glamorous for high school athletes. Steidl said he used to pray that he wouldn’t grow taller than 6’3″ because he knew that would be the end of his days in the backfield.

“Now I wish I wouldn’t have done that because I am 6’3″ and I stayed there,” he said. “My junior year I was only 198 pounds, still skinny. Now this year, I don’t know where it came from, but I just put on 75 pounds. I know I’m a lot different from those days of playing running back. I still got to run the ball a little bit this year. That felt good, but defensive line is definitely a better fit now with my body.”

Steidl currently weighs around 265 pounds. He said the coaches at NDSU want him to play at around 290. If recent history is any indication, he should have no problem getting up to that weight.

He’ll use a redshirt season next fall and knows he has almost three years to get there before he hopes to earn some reps on the field as a redshirt sophomore. Steidl plans on gaining that weight while still leaning on some of the athleticism that he used during his days as a running back.

Steidl battles with an offensive lineman from Sartell playing from the defensive end position during Alexandria’s game against the Sabres on September 6, 2013. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

“I know my recruiting coach said that our defensive linemen aren’t big and slow, they’re big and quick,” Steidl said. “Then he’s like, ‘The defensive ends, they’re going to be even quicker than you’…what he said is our defensive tackles won’t take up a lot of blocks. We’ll do a lot of hands work, pushing, driving, which is nice.”

Steidl knows none of this will be easy, but it’s a lot of hard work and early mornings in the weight room that took him from 175 pounds as a sophomore to where he is today. That allowed him to cross off that first goal he had written on his list above his door. Now as a walk-on with the best team at the FCS level, he will use a chip on his shoulder to try and get on the field and earn that scholarship over the next handful of years.

“It’s definitely a work ethic,” Steidl said. “I know a lot of people are going to say, ‘Oh, you’re just going to be a walk-on.’ I could have taken money at Duluth, but I’m not going to let money make my decision. That’s just going to push me even more to think that this guy here is getting a bigger scholarship than me. I can prove myself to the coaches that I can be better than him.”

 

Osakis’ Spanswick shows no rust in return from a broken leg

Osakis junior Tyler Spanswick has surprised even himself a little bit with the kind of success he has had since returning from a football injury to wrestle at 195 pounds.

Spanswick was hoping to have a standout season in football before those plans were put on hold after he suffered a broken leg in the season opener against Browerville on August 29.

Spanswick (Contributed)

“I was rooting to come back for playoffs in football, and I rushed it too much and kind of hurt it a little more,” Spanswick said. “Then I was just shooting for wrestling, so I did my therapy and got ready for wrestling season.”

Spanswick was out of action for more than four months before he got back on the mat in early January. But rust has certainly not been an issue for him since his return.

Spanswick was 10-0 after a forfeit win at 195 pounds against West Central Area last Friday. Of those 10 wins, two were by forfeit and the rest were by fall. He came back on Saturday and had two more pins, including one against a big, strong opponent in WCA’s Hunter Fick during the semifinals of the Park Region championships.

Spanswick finally did drop his first match of the season against New York Mills’ Tyler Patron in the championship at 195 pounds. But a second-place finish and a 12-1 record with 10 pins is a great start.

“The first couple matches were pretty different, and then I figured it out from last year,” Spanswick said. “I got into the loop and just got ready to go. [My leg] feels strong. After I broke it and did all my therapy, it feels pretty good.”

Spanswick is also having this success despite being outweighed by most of his opponents at 195. He struggled with injuries last season while wrestling at 160 pounds. Getting down to that weight proved to be an issue, so he felt a good fit would be at 195.

Head coach Joey Andreasen said he was right at that weight when he came off the injury a few weeks ago. Now with all the calories burnt during practice, he is closer to 183 pounds. Spanswick might not have the weight advantage on a lot of opponents, but he uses his athleticism to make up for that.

“I am pretty surprised,” head coach Joey Andreasen said of Spanswick’s fast start. “Last year, he was 8-8 in the matches that he wrestled. And he was always injured and he really never got to practice that much. I think maturing and moving up in weight a little bit; he is so athletic for a 195 pounder. He can do front handsprings and things like that that most 195 pounders can’t do.”

Spanswick is plenty strong himself. Andreasen said he benches 300 pounds, and he’s looking forward to seeing him go up against some state-ranked competition.

“We need to get him some mat time because he’s only been to the second period like once,” Andreasen said. “So we don’t know how he’s going to react if he ever hits minute number four with his conditioning. It hasn’t happened yet, but he’s certainly been a great addition to the team.”

Spanswick hasn’t made a state tournament before in his high school career. Those are his goals as he tries to stay healthy and build on a fast start to his season.

Empting has no regrets about changing offensive system

The Alexandria football team came into this season with high hopes on offense for a group of athletes that coaches and players alike felt were a good fit for the more wide-open attack that the Cardinals installed in camp after years of running the Wing-T.

Alexandria showed flashes of the kind of production that the team was hoping for. The Cardinals put up 34 points in back-to-back weeks against Grand Rapids and Bemidji, but the Cardinals were never able to find the consistency they wanted. They averaged 19.9 points per game this season, fourth in the Central Lakes Conference North behind Bemidji (36.1), Brainerd (35.1) and Moorhead (31).

“I look at the way football is going and the way defenses are adapting,” Empting said. “I look at the personnel that we have. I thought this year we had the personnel – a good quarterback, good running back, good receiving corps for our quarterback to throw to, but maybe it was just a learning curve this year.”

Empting and his players consistently mentioned that they felt it was self-inflicted wounds that were keeping them from being productive. Penalties, turnovers, the inability to execute correctly on both sides of the ball – all of those came into play and never really allowed this team to take off.

Senior running back Mitch Peck got loose for a few extra yards against Moorhead in the section opener on Tuesday. Peck scored Alexandria’s only touchdown of the night with a one-yard run in the fourth quarter. (Dave Wallis/Fargo Forum)

“Sometimes you got to get out of your own way to be successful and there were times this season when we struggled with that,” Empting said. “A new offensive system that we didn’t really have a chance to work on as a team until day one, maybe that played a role in it. There’s new terminology, everything was brand new…it was just a lot and maybe it was too much for all in one season.”

Empting said a lot of those problems showed up again on Tuesday night as Alexandria traveled to Moorhead for the first round of the Section 8AAAAA playoffs. The Cardinals took over at the 20-yard line after a touchback on Moorhead’s opening kick. The first run play went for close to five yards to put Alexandria in a good spot.

“Then on second and medium, we really thought we could run it between the tackles,” Empting said. “We came with a couple of running plays that should have worked great. They were blocked really well and the backfield went the wrong direction and we took losses on both those plays.”

Those types of miscues happened on the first two possessions, which led to Moorhead getting the ball with a short field to work with. The Spuds took advantage of that and were up 14-0 by the end of the first quarter.

“If we play clean on our opening drive, it’s a different story because when we executed we moved the ball,” Empting said. “We moved it right down. It was just kind of a frustrating night. Our kids played really hard, but I think everybody that was there saw we made a lot of mistakes.”

The end result was a 42-7 loss that ended the Cardinals season at 2-7. It wasn’t the record anyone was hoping for, but Empting wouldn’t go back on any of the changes they made offensively. It’s a system that works for a lot of teams in the CLC and one that the Cardinals believe will work for them in the future.

“I don’t have any regrets,” Empting said. “I think it was the right move. I still think it’s the right move. We implemented it down into our middle school. Our middle school kids are running it, and they are doing a great job with it. I thought our 9th grade did a great job with it.

“At the end of every year, we take a look at what we have to improve on. I think moving forward, we look at how do we do this better. I don’t think we’re at a point where we’re going to change. We’re just going to say, ‘How can we improve this?’ Whether it’s play calling or simplifying things.

“It was a lot,” Empting added. “No doubt about it, but I think the kids did the best they could with it, and I think we showed flashes of being really good. I am encouraged by the fact that we implemented it all the way down in our program and the kids seem to like it and have fun with it. They’re catching onto it, too.”

 

 

Willmar will offer a tough challenge on Alexandria’s homecoming

The Alexandria football team won’t get any breaks on the schedule for homecoming weekend as a 3-1 Willmar team comes to Citizens Field for a 3 p.m. kickoff this Saturday.

Willmar lost a three-year starter at quarterback in Alex Grove last season, but in has stepped a new signal caller that is finding similar success early on. Junior Augustine Hahn has helped this Willmar offense average 35 points per game and score more than 42 in three of those four contests.

“Last year, they had a good one in Alex Grove,” Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said when I talked to him on Wednesday. “And they just took the next kid and same thing. Good athlete, throws the ball well, makes good decisions, has a good running back next to him, but the bottom line is everything goes through him.”

Hahn set the tone for his team in a 45-0 win over Grand Rapids last Friday night. He finished 14-of-17 passing for 243 yards and three touchdowns in a game that was all but over by the half. Hahn completed his last nine passes in the first half on his way to 214 yards by the break.

He’s a big reason why this Willmar team is 2-0 in the South half of the conference and 3-1 overall. They are currently tied with St. Cloud Tech (4-0, 2-0 CLC) and St. Cloud Apollo (3-1, 2-0 CLC) atop the division. Bemidji (4-0, 2-0 CLC), Brainerd (4-0, 2-0 CLC) and Moorhead (2-2, 2-0 CLC) are tied on top of the North Division. The game against Willmar will be a big challenge for this Alexandria team as it tries to get its first win of the season in front of a homecoming crowd.

“We’re going to be tested again,” Empting said. “It’s the nature of playing in the Central Lakes Conference. I think it’s one of the best outstate conferences in the state . There are tremendous teams out here. We represent every year at the state level.”

Check out Friday’s issue of the Echo Press for more on the match-up against Willmar.

Alex football changes its offense to better fit its personnel

The Alexandria football team will look quite a bit different this season after moving away from an offensive system that has been a part of this program for many years.

The Wing-T offense is designed to help teams control the ball through a ground-oriented attack and by mixing in the play-action pass. It helped produce some successful teams in the past for the Cardinals, but head coach Mike Empting and his staff felt it was time to move away from it and find an offense that better fits this team’s personnel.

Alexandria quarterback John Vogeler threw a quick pass to fellow senior captain Parker Bowden during the Cardinals’ fourth practice of camp on Thursday. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“Sometimes, you just got to hold your breath and go,” Empting said. “Can the Wing-T still be successful right now? Eden Prairie runs basically the Wing-T and they’re at state every year. Totino-Grace does as well, but they’re also Eden Prairie and Totino-Grace. They could probably run whatever they want and be successful because they got the bodies.”

Schools the size of Alexandria and many others in the Central Lakes Conference don’t always have that luxury. Instead, Cardinal coaches looked at what they had coming back this season and knew they needed to give an athletic group the chance to make more plays.

They figured the best way to do that would be by spreading opponents out and letting their skill position players use their natural ability. Quarterback John Vogeler and running back Mitch Peck make up an athletic backfield. Fellow senior captains Parker Bowden (WR) and Aaron Steidl (TE), along with guys like David Krivanek, Joe Gorghuber, Riley Hvezda and Parker Revering, provide Vogeler with a lot of guys he is excited to throw to.

“I’m very confident,” Vogeler said of his skill position players. “Probably the most confident I’ve ever been. We have Parker, David, Riley, Steidl. I honestly think it’s probably one of the best wide receiver combinations for quite some time because everybody has very good speed, super athletic, good agility and can make the plays and go up and get the ball.”

Vogeler will line up in the shotgun and the offense will go no-huddle and feature some four and five-wide receiver sets. Empting also knows he has Steidl at tight end, who he said is almost impossible to keep off the field with his ability to block up front and catch the ball.

“You got to give your athletes a chance,” Empting said. “If you’re under center and turn and hand off, which has been good for us. We’ve been very successful here with that, but there comes a time when it might just be time to turn the page. We’ve got the guys. We just need to give them a chance to make plays.”

Empting said his staff went to a lot of clinics and reached out to coaches all over at both the high school and college level to gain advice on how to run this style of offense. They even contacted an offensive line coach at the University of Oregon. The Ducks became the blueprint under now Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly on how to spread teams out and use multiple athletes to torment an opposing defense.

“We really wanted to find out as much about the ins and outs of this stuff as we could,” Empting said. “It’s simple. It’s not as complicated as you would imagine, and when you’re not huddling, it can’t be that complicated. There’s only so many ways you can communicate. The kids are catching on to it really well. It gives us, I think, some advantages because we’re not very big up front. We have a lot of double teams, which are great. We’re not very big but we’re pretty strong still, so we have two guys working on one.”

It will be a new look for this team and one that the Cardinals hope will result in a lot more success after going 2-8 in 2012. The Cardinals graduated almost everybody on their offensive line from last year. How that new group adjusts to the varsity level will go a long way in determining whether or not the new offense is a success.

“For us to go, those guys have to go,” Empting said. “Whether it’s protecting in the pass or creating seams in the running game. But I think we definitely have the ability to be more dynamic and have a higher probability of success with what we’re doing right now if those guys take a little bit of time to gel.”

Action photos from Wednesday’s Class 3A state golf meet

The weather didn’t exactly know what to do with itself at the Class 3A state golf meet at Bunker Hills on Wednesday.

The Alexandria boys played two holes before waiting through a rain delay early in the morning. They then played during a downpour for about 30 minutes once they got going again a little after 11.

That pushed the girls’ start time back about an hour and a half, but once they finally got going, they did so in what was relatively perfect weather for golf. The Cardinals took advantage of it on their way to a second-place finish at state. You can read more about both the boys and girls performances on our website and in Friday’s issue of the Echo Press.

In the meantime, here are a few of my favorite action shots I got from yesterday that depict the change in weather that the golfers played through.

Sophomore Cole Haugen watched his putt through the driving rain on the fourth green after the boys got going again around 11:10. Haugen said after the meet that he would rather play in wind than rain, but he hasn’t had much choice for much of this spring. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

 

Senior Nick Brundell watched his ball off the fifth tee box. Brundell said the rain was nothing this team hasn’t gotten used to already this season. He blocked it out to shoot a two-day score of 152 to finish tied for 15th individually. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

 

The girls had no such problems with the weather. Here, Shelby Iverson hit out of the sand on her 17th hole as the sun started to set. Iverson got up and down from there to save par and finish with a career-best 86. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

 

Amanda Bigger busted out of a fairway bunker during her final hole on Wednesday. Bigger hit it to the left fringe and finished off her round with a par on her way to a 76. Her two-day total of 156 was good for ninth place overall. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Alex baseball looks back on a memorable season after loss to Brainerd

This wasn’t the way the Alexandria baseball team imagined a memorable season ending.

The top-seeded Cardinals had one of their best teams in recent history and felt it had the pieces to make a run at a section title. They came up just short of that goal as Alexandria fell a game shy of an 8-3A title game appearance after losing 7-6 to Brainerd last night.

Ben Allen charged and made a bare-handed play on a bunt in the first inning against Brainerd on Wednesday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“This is the hardest way to lose, especially to Brainerd in front of all our fans and everything,” senior third baseman Ben Allen said from Knute Nelson ballpark on Wednesday. “It doesn’t get any worse than this.”

The Cardinals were three outs away from matching up against eventual section-title winner Rocori. Alexandria led 6-5 going to the top of the seventh inning before Brainerd’s Nate DeChaine drilled a Blake Stockert slider to center field for a two-run home run.

“I just hung it,” Stockert said. “I was kind of second guessing it when I threw it. I don’t know. I just threw it, left it up. I didn’t keep it down where I was supposed to. He’s a good hitter and he did what he was supposed to do with it.”

Stockert battled through six innings before Jake Booth came on to get the final three outs of the seventh. Stockert settled down and threw four scoreless frames after allowing four runs in the first. The Cardinals used that to battle back and take a 6-4 lead in the fifth after an RBI double by Allen.

Brainerd kept applying pressure, though. The Warriors finally broke through again with a sacrifice fly that scored a run in the sixth. They then took advantage of a lead-off walk in the seventh before DeChaine connected on a pitch up in the zone.

“There’s nothing we can say as coaches that’s going to make them feel any better,” head coach Russ Hinrichs said. “I think they’re hurting, but they put a lot into it. You get out of it what you put into it, and they put a lot into this season. It’s not the way we wanted to finish, but I’m proud of them. I thought we played hard all year. We very easily could have quit in that game, but we didn’t. We kept battling and took the lead. They’re going to remember this season for what they accomplished for a long time.”

Senior Grant Becker went into his slide right before Brainerd’s Tom Graumann applied the tag in a close play at home after a wild pitch. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

What they accomplished is a 17-8 record and this program’s second Central Lakes Conference title. The only other league title for Alexandria came in 2002 when the Cardinals finished 12-2, one game ahead of Rocori. The Spartans and Alexandria both finished 11-3 this season.

“We really came together during the whole season,” Stockert said. “As the season went on, we just started killing teams. We played really, really well. As we got to the end of the year, I don’t know. We didn’t piece together what we’ve done the whole season. We just didn’t pull it out like we needed to do right at the end.”

The Cardinals will have those memories to fall back on once the disappointment of Wednesday’s loss disappears. Games like a walk-off winner over Rocori after the Cardinals trailed 3-0 going to the final inning on May 10 will stick with these guys.

“Walking off against Rocori for sure,” Allen said of what he will remember most from his senior year. “And just spending time with this team. It’s a lot easier when you’re tight like this team. Compared to all other sports I’ve been involved with, this team is a lot more fun to be around.”

That’s ultimately what Hinrichs wants these players to remember. He knows coming up short of their final goal will hurt for a little while, but what he doesn’t want it to do is take away from what this group accomplished over its entire body of work.

“To win a conference title, that’s a big step for this program,” he said. “Our goal, every year when we sit down is I want coaches to say, ‘We’re going to have to beat Brainerd, Rocori and Alexandria.’ I want to get our program into that little trio of teams, and I think we’re there. I think every year people will know we’re going to fight and battle. This team brought a conference championship to Alexandria and that will be their legacy. They’ll hang a banner and 17 wins is not easy. It was a good season and we have nothing to hang our heads about.”

Stockert still confident in this team, himself after 10-0 loss to Brainerd

Alexandria baseball coach Russ Hinrichs was as surprised as anybody at the way the top-seeded Cardinals played on their home field in a 10-0 loss in six innings to Brainerd on Thursday night.

“I told the kids, I saw a hungry team come here against a team that was overconfident, for whatever reason,” Hinrichs said. “We weren’t ready to play and they were. That’s hard to explain. We haven’t been 10-runned all year. To play that way at home, in front of a good crowd again, is disappointing. You don’t get many opportunities to put yourself in that position. Now we’re going to have to come back and muster up the energy and the courage to come back through the loser’s bracket.”

Alexandria’s Blake Stockert threw a pitch in the second inning against Brainerd on Tuesday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Alexandria wasn’t the same team that Hinrichs has watched win 15 games to this point. The Cardinals weren’t sharp on defense with three errors. Their bats racked up only three hits and they didn’t get the start they are accustomed to getting from Blake Stockert.

The junior lefty, now 5-1 with a 1.93 ERA, was dominant through his first five starts and his offense had backed him by 10-running every opponent. Brainerd made it clear that wasn’t going to be the case from the get-go.

“I felt fine,” Stockert said. “It’s just, they’re the best team I’ve faced yet this year. They just really knew how to hit the ball. They must have really been practicing hitting lefties. I mean, anything I threw, they were just pretty much making contact. Yeah, we made some errors and you can’t rely just on your pitching. You need your whole team also, and we just weren’t all there tonight.”

The Warriors got three runs in the first inning, aided by two Alexandria errors. That set the tone as a good Warriors team was never intimidated by a guy who can overpower opponents when he has all his stuff working.

“They just never quit,” Stockert said. “They were just hungry the whole time. Anything that you wanted to happen would just go completely wrong. They played the game of baseball, pretty much. That’s all you can say. They’re a good team.”

The Warriors are now 15-6, despite losing the two regular-season games they played against Alexandria. That had no bearing on the way they played on Thursday. Brainerd got a complete-game gem from lefty Tom Graumann, and its offense chased Stockert after four innings. The Warriors got to him for eight runs, five earned, on 11 hits and two walks. Stockert struck out three.

Senior Beau Backhaus planted and threw to first in an attempted double play as Brainerd’s Connor Gessell slid into second. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“He obviously didn’t pitch as well as he can,” Hinrichs said. “He was up, and he only had one pitch. He couldn’t throw anything but a fastball, and they’re a good fastball hitting team. We gave them a lot of extra outs, though. We didn’t do the things that have gotten us to this point. We weren’t sharp defensively. We weren’t backing up bases. We weren’t playing the way we played all year. That’s probably the most disappointing thing. When you get to the playoffs, you want to play your best baseball and we didn’t today.”

The opportunity is there for the Cardinals to bounce back next Monday. Alexandria will be at the MAC in St. Cloud where it will play either Big Lake or Sauk Rapids-Rice at 11 a.m. A win and the Cardinals would play right after that against either St. Michael-Albertville or Moorhead at 1:30.

This is an Alexandria team that hasn’t lost back-to-back games all season. Stockert, for one, is confident that won’t change as the Cardinals try to battle back through the loser’s bracket.

Junior Jake Booth came on in the fifth and threw the final two innings, allowing two runs on three hits. He struck out three. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“It sucks but we can’t let this get us down,” he said. “We need to come right back tomorrow and keep working. I feel 100 percent sure we’re going to win that game (on Monday). We just had one ugly game, and I know that won’t put us down. We’ll definitely win our next game.”

Hinrichs said senior Beau Backhaus will get the ball in game one on Monday. He is 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA and has pitched in some of Alexandria’s biggest games this season. If the Cardinals win, Hinrichs said a game-two starter wasn’t determined yet but Stockert or senior Nick Knoblach are the likely candidates to get the ball. There is no doubt that Stockert would love another opportunity to get up on the mound in a must-win situation.

“Everyone is not going to have a perfect season,” he said. “Going 6-0, that’s pretty much almost unheard of. As soon as we win this next game, because I know we will, anything I can do to go up on that mound is just going to be another honor. I know I’ll do good.”

Alexandria can guarantee itself an opportunity to play back at home if it can make it through Monday. Next Tuesday’s games will be played at the highest remaining seed’s home field. That’s an advantage the Cardinals hope they have a chance to exploit as they take things game-by-game from here on out.

“We’re facing adversity,” Hinrichs said. “Now we need to see if we can fight back…the biggest thing for us is if we win two on Monday, we’re back here. It’s been a great year at home. We have to go there on Monday and just take one game at a time now.”