Alexandria head football coach Mike Empting has probably never gone into a season where he’ll need so many young players to grow up early in their careers than the one he is about to embark on this fall.
I spent Tuesday at Alexandria’s morning practice where I caught up with Empting and five of his six senior captains. We talked about how that youth will affect this team’s chances in an always tough Central Lakes Conference. I’ll have a complete story on that in the Echo Press before next Friday’s season opener against St. Cloud Tech at Citizen’s Field. In the meantime, here are a few of the biggest storylines facing the Cardinals heading into that game.
* The Alexandria coaching staff knows dealing with low numbers in individual classes is inevitable sometimes, but they hope to avoid it in back-to-back classes. That’s exactly the situation the Cardinals find themselves in this fall with just 30 juniors and seniors on this roster, many of which are bunched into the same positions on the field.
“We’ve had a class where our numbers have been down, but they’ve always been followed by a group that has average or above average numbers,” Empting said. “We have kind of below average numbers in our top two grades right now. The kids are great. The quality of kids that we have there are outstanding. I just wish that we had more of them.”
That means a lot of guys will be asked to make an impact on both offense and defense. It also means there will be plenty of sophomores competing for starting and back-up roles on this team. It’s a concern, not because Empting doesn’t like their talent, but because it’s tough to win with 16-year-old kids going up against junior and senior-laden teams in the CLC.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Empting said when I asked him if that alters expectations this year. “In our top two grades, we have a total of 30 kids. We have 36 in the sophomore class, so we have more in one group than we do in our top two grades combined. That’s a challenge.”
“I think it’s going to be a year where we’re going to have to gain some experience, definitely. The younger kids are going to have to get some playing time…Like I said, they’re good athletes. We’re going to have good athletes on the field. But again, with that youth, they lack the years of training, in some cases durability because they’re 16-year old kids competing against 18-year-old kids. That’s a tough order in the game of football.”
* Avoiding injuries in those top two grades will be important for this team, and it’s an area where the Cardinals have already taken a hit. Empting said starting senior cornerback Nick Knoblach will be out at least 4-6 weeks after having sports hernia surgery on Tuesday.
It’s an injury that Knoblach dealt with earlier this summer during Legion baseball. He thought he needed surgery in late June before he was told on a second look that the injury was just a strained ligament that would heal on its own.
The pain returned once he started getting some contact at the beginning of camp. Empting said Knoblach met with a specialist yesterday where they decided to schedule the surgery for today.
“He’s a captain,” Empting said. “Obviously there’s that leadership piece that’s going to be missed, and he is definitely a good athlete. He was our starting cornerback and figuring into the mix on the offensive side as well. It’s tough to replace an athlete like Nick, and he has that experience because he played for us there last year as well. Those are two things that are difficult to replace, but we have kids who are going to step in there. We have to. We have to move forward.”
* Junior John Vogeler will be stepping in as this team’s starting quarterback this season. Vogeler showed some good zip on his throws while hitting guys in stride during passing drills this morning.
Empting said he likes the athleticism that Vogeler brings to the table as a three-sport athlete. I wouldn’t expect the stage to be too big for him even as a first-year starting quarterback. Vogeler is used to the varsity level after averaging 11.8 points per game in basketball and competing with the Alexandria varsity golf team as a sophomore.
Empting listed senior Nathan Huss and juniors Riley Hvezda and Mitchell Thompson as guys he believes can help Vogeler stretch the field a little bit this season.
“We have some guys who I think can catch the football,” he said. “We’re still trying to find our way at tight end. James Holmquist is in the mix there, along with Joe Gorghuber and Aaron Steidl. Aaron is probably going to have to be a full time defensive player as well, so he might have limited reps there. Tanner Runge, a senior, is in the mix as well.”
* Just because this team lacks a lot of depth in the junior and senior classes doesn’t mean those upperclassmen are ready to accept a rebuilding season. That’s the message the captains on the team had when I talked to them after practice.
“We have the same goals of getting to the section, being competitive,” OT/DT Tyler Meyer said. “We might not have a lot of superstars on the team, but we have a lot of guys that put in the work in the off-season who have been working hard. They want to make something of their year, whether they be juniors or seniors and all the way down.”
Max Flowers (DT), Chase Duwenhoegger (OG/DT) , Ted Deitz (OT/DE), Knoblach (CB) and Tyler Kelly (LB/RB) will join Meyer as the six captains expected to lead the way towards accomplishing those goals.
* Also new this season will be Alexandria moving from Section 8-4A to Section 8-5A after the Minnesota State High School League made the decision to move to seven classes for football, including 9-man. Joining the Cardinals in the revamped section will be Moorhead, Sartell-St. Stephen, Sauk Rapids-Rice, St. Cloud Apollo and St. Cloud Tech.
“I don’t think [it changes things] too much,” Empting said. We get thrown in with Tech and Moorhead, and we play those teams anyway. It’s not like we’re getting thrown in there with the Elk Rivers or Buffalo or Wayzata or anything like that. They are bigger schools at playoff time. We’re not going to run into Fergus Falls or Little Falls, those types of teams, so it gives us a bigger challenge at the end of the season.”
*Below, Mike Empting talks about the youth on this team, the strength of the guys up front and junior quarterback John Vogeler. (I apologize for the wind noise in the middle.)