Alex boys ready to take on a wide open field

Almost every team heading into tonight’s opening round of the Section 8AAA boys’ basketball tournament is likely thinking the same thing – why not us?

The Cardinals (12-12) and Little Falls (19-7) are both in that position as they get set to face off in the quarterfinals after things were delayed a day by snow on Tuesday. Alexandria will come in playing as well as any team in the section after winning seven of its last eight games. And in a field where the top seeds are 14-12 in the South (Sartell) and 16-10 in the North (Fergus Falls), why can’t Alexandria be the one hoisting a section championship trophy on March 14?

“Our section is wide open,” Cardinals head coach Forrest Witt said. “I really believe there are five or six teams that could win the section title. We understand what we’re capable of, but we also need to understand that nothing will be given to us. Everything is going to be hard-earned. We need to continue to build off what we’ve done over the last half of the season, as we have seen tremendous growth from our players.”

Junior guard John Vogeler went up for two of his 16 points in his second game back from an ankle injury against Willmar on January 17. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Any team that is playing its best basketball at this time of year is making the kind of progress that a coach wants to see. Witt thought there could be some growing pains coming into the season with some new players adjusting to varsity around this team’s two leading scorers from last year in Logan Doyle and John Vogeler.

Having those two back seemed to be a good area to build around, but those plans took an immediate hit with an injury to Vogeler. He missed almost one-third of the season with an ankle injury before returning against Big lake on January 12. Even after his return, it took a little while to get back into the flow.

Slowly but surely, the pieces seem to have fallen into place. It wasn’t going to take much. Of the 12 losses Alexandria has, 11 have come by 10 points or less. Instead of dwelling on letting those close games slip away, the Cardinals kept believing that with a little improvement, those losses would turn into wins.

“We are playing with a high level of confidence right now,” Witt said. “The kids are executing pretty well in their specific roles on this team. Experience has been a huge key in our late-season run. With several players seeing big minutes for the first time this year, it just took some experience and game situations to adjust to the level of play.”

Perhaps the biggest indication of a turnaround for this group came in a 59-54 win in Moorhead on February 15. The Spuds handed the Cardinals their worst loss of the season in the opener on November 30. Moorhead’s Aaron Lien had 30 points that night and fellow senior Austin Nelson added 21 to lead their team to a 69-42 win.

Junior guard Brandon Bistodeau got past the defense in a game against Brainerd earlier this season. Bistodeau has scored in double figures during the last three regular-season games. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Alexandria held the Spuds to their second lowest point total of the season in the rematch. Vogeler led the offense with 18 points, while Brandon Bistodeau had 15 and David Krivanek added 12. Doyle also controlled the paint with 17 rebounds to go along with his eight points that night.

Bistodeau’s play late in the season has been a good sign for this team. The junior guard has been in double figures over the final three regular-season games. He capped that off with 19 points on 6-of-6 shooting from the field and a 7-of-8 night from the free throw line in a 76-61 win over a 14-12 Rocori team last Friday. Bistodeau’s play is an example of guys getting more comfortable with each other as the season has gone on.

“The chemistry we are playing with has been a big factor in our improved play,” Witt said. “The kids are playing together and for one another. The level of trust they have for reach other on the court has improved greatly.”

Getting those contributions from all over the court will be even more important now as the Cardinals try to carry their late-season success into the playoffs. They know they need to play their best basketball starting tonight if they want to make a run. But in a field where any team can win on any given night, they have given themselves reason to believe that a title is there for the taking.