Empting praises his team’s improvement heading into Willmar on Friday night

The Alexandria football team isn’t fooled by Willmar’s 1-3 record as it goes on the road to face another tough Central Lakes Conference opponent this Friday night.

Willmar has been in every game it has played this season but found itself on the losing end of a lot of those. None was harder to take than a 22-21 loss at Rocori last Friday that would have halted a now 16-game winning streak for the Spartans.

Willmar held an explosive Rocori offense to just 61 yards in the second half before Mac Mueller found Nick Thorpe for the winning touchdown with four seconds left. Willmar has combined to lose by just nine points in its three losses this season.

” They’re a good 1-3 team,” Alexandria head coach Mike Empting said. “They have been in four really close games. They’re pretty strong defensively, two real big tackles on defense who will be tough to move and two active inside linebackers behind them. Offensively, they have a three-year starting quarterback who throws the ball and runs the ball well.”

Alexandria quarterback John Vogeler got away from St. Cloud Apollo’s Dusty Cassens and looked down field for an opening on a run against the Eagles on Saturday. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Alexandria knows all about senior quarterback Alex Grove. The Cardinals have seen first-hand how capable he is of running and throwing the ball. Grove showed that again last week as he had a hand in all three Willmar touchdowns, two coming through the air and one on the ground.

“With any spread-option team we see, Rocori and teams like that, it begins and ends with the quarterback,” Empting said. “It seems like they take their best athletes, put them back there and let them use their athleticism. [Grove] runs it really well, throws it pretty well. We’re going to have to play very disciplined on defense.”

That’s an area where Empting said his team improved dramatically against St. Cloud Apollo compared to where they were through the first three weeks of the season. The Cardinals defense looked like a much more confident unit against the Eagles on Saturday.

Empting was happy with his team’s improvement on that side of the ball as he watched them play on the field that day. After watching the tape, he was even more impressed with the steps they took just one week after giving up 45 points to Fergus Falls.

“We did so many things a lot better against Apollo,” he said. “We looked like a much more organized defense. The kids came with much more leverage, they were reacting a lot faster to what they were seeing. Those are the kind of things you start to see when the kids aren’t thinking about it as much. When they’re confident, they play a lot faster. All of a sudden, the kids back there who we know are athletic, their athleticism is going to start showing. We started to see that last week.”

The game against Willmar on Friday will be another opportunity to gauge that improvement against a quality team. It doesn’t get any easier after that with Bemidji, Moorhead and Brainerd, the final three teams on Alexandria’s schedule, combing for a 9-3 record through the first four weeks. Empting knows it will be a challenge, and he’s excited to see how his team responds to it.

“The kids have been great,” he said. “They’re working hard. With a young group like this you kind of wait for that breakthrough. With the way things were going, losing can be a motivating factor. That motivation always comes but you hope it comes this season and not the next…I credit our kids and the leaders on this team. They have not allowed apathy to set in. They believe in one another, they’re continuing to get better and believing in the coaching staff and what we’re doing.”