Empting talks Brainerd, injuries and playoff opponent St. Cloud Tech

Wednesday night marked a tough ending to a tough regular season for the Alexandria football team on a cool and rainy night at Citizens Field.

The Cardinals came into the game hoping to build some kind of momentum heading into the Section 8AAAAA playoffs next week. Instead, Alexandria was left with a lot more questions after a 42-7 loss to a Brainerd team that finished with a share of the Central Lakes Conference title after finishing 4-1 in league play.

“Sometimes the game, it’s just block and tackle and throw and catch and hang onto the football,” head coach Mike Empting said. “We struggled with just about every part of that tonight.”

Fumbles continued to be a problem for an Alexandria team that lost five of them in a 25-15 loss to Moorhead last Friday night. Against the Warriors, the Cardinals lost the ball three more times. Those fumbles came at inopportune times, too; once with Alexandria driving deep in Brainerd territory in the first half and another that gave the Warriors the ball on the Alexandria five-yard line.

“We told the guys coming in, especially the last two games, if we hang onto the ball and tackle, we’ll be right in it,” Empting said. “We turned the ball over going into the end zone, struggled to make tackles…those are things that you can’t do. You can’t have that many turnovers and compete.”

Brainerd didn’t need much help to begin with. The Warriors (6-2) dominated on the ground from start to finish. Their stats had them for 460 total yards. Their running game accounted for 413 of those as quarterback Luke Boran and junior running back Conor Gessell shed tackles and ran through big holes throughout the night.

Gessell finished with 182 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Boran added 116 yards and two scores on 17 carries, while junior running back Logan Davis had two touchdowns and 80 yards as well.

Junior quarterback John Vogeler lowered his shoulder into Brainerd’s Grant Reuer during a second quarter run on Wednesday night. Vogeler had Alexandria’s only touchdown of the night on a 65-yard keeper in the third quarter. (Echo photo by Eric Morken)

The Cardinals came into the game wanting to sustain drives to keep Brainerd off the field, but they just couldn’t do that for much of the night. Alexandria’s only touchdown came on a one-play possession in the third quarter when junior quarterback John Vogeler made a couple guys miss before sprinting down the right sideline for a 65-yard score that made it 28-7.

“We worked on a couple new things this week, on a short week, and the kids responded to the new things,” Warriors defensive coordinator Jason Freed told the Brainerd Dispatch’s Mike Bialka. “We were able to put on a lot of pressure and get a lot of penetration with our defensive linemen, which allowed our guys to scrape off and make a lot of plays. It was our best effort of the year, defensively.”

Alexandria knows it has to clean up the turnovers, the penalties and the missed tackles if it wants to have any shot of continuing its season in the playoffs. The challenging part will be getting them to believe that they can do that heading into next Tuesday night.

“If they can just do the simple things,” Empting said. “Hold onto the ball. We’ve really struggled with turnovers. We struggled with penalties again tonight at really bad times. Tackling, just being better tacklers. We talk to the kids about that. I hope they believe us, but at the same time, it has to happen so they can see the result, which I think would be very positive. But it’s kind of a catch-22.”

* Mitch Thompson injury update: The game also came with a scare for the Alexandria players and fans when wide receiver/free safety Mitchell Thompson had to be taken off the field on a stretcher. Thompson’s head hit the turf when he was tackled on a kick return with four seconds left in the third quarter.

Thompson had full movement but the trainers took all the necessary precautions. The game was delayed around 25 minutes before he gave a thumbs up to the crowd as he was taken off to a huge ovation.

“That’s the hardest part of this job, the hardest part of playing this sport is to see an athlete go down with something like that,” Empting said last night. “A lot of what they’re doing they said is precautionary, but at the same time, there’s no such thing as a non-serious neck injury. Everything was moving. He was talking to us out there, but at the same time you hate to see that. You feel badly for the parents. That’s something that no parent should have to experience.”

Empting had just gotten off the phone with Thompson’s mom this morning when I talked to him about how Mitch was doing. He said Thompson was released from the ER last night after passing a number of tests. Empting said he suffered a sprained neck and a concussion that will likely keep him out for the rest of the season.

“He seemed to be in good spirits,” Empting said. “Sore obviously and all those things. I think probably a little shook up. It’s a scary situation for everybody, and I can’t imagine being the athlete and the parents going through that.”

It was one of two serious injuries that Alexandria players suffered against the Warriors. Senior captain Chase Duwenhoegger (OL/DT) also went down with a knee injury early in the game. Empting said the preliminary reports are that Duwenhoegger suffered a Grade III MCL tear that will end his career in a Cardinals’ uniform prematurely.

“He’s been through so much already,” Empting said. “He had surgery going into his sophomore year to remedy a dislocated patella on his other knee and made it back to play. He was a starter and then broke his pinky his junior year against Bemidji. He needed surgery from that and played with a big club on his hand…He’s played through so much and been through too much. It’s just tough.”

*Cards get Tech in 8AAAAA Playoff opener: Alexandria will open up the playoffs next Tuesday on the road against a team that has also been hit bad by injuries. 

St. Cloud Tech was already in the midst of a three-game losing streak after starting the season 3-1 heading into last night’s game against Rocori. That losing streak reached four games with a 26-13 loss to the Spartans, but more devastating for the Tigers was the loss of their best player.

Star running back Jake Peterson went down with what the St. Cloud Time’s reported was a fractured fibula just before the end of the first half last night. Peterson is the St. Cloud area’s leading rusher, something the Cardinals knew all about after he ran wild in a 28-13 win over Alexandria in week one. Peterson threw for two touchdowns and added another on the ground all in the first half during that game.

“Peterson was everything for them in that first game against us,” Empting said.

The Cardinals and Tigers will gather for an 8:15 p.m. kickoff at St. Cloud State University’s Husky Stadium next Tuesday as two teams trying to get on track. Both have lost four straight games, but both also know that doesn’t mean much once the records are wiped clean in the playoffs.

“After playing them in game one, I think as a team we’ve come a long ways since that game,” Empting said. “At the time, watching the video and everything, I felt like we let one get away from us then. We’ll see. They’re still a good team. They’re well coached…the good part is what we did in the regular season is kind of wiped away and we start 0-0.”