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.”

 

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.”

Empting praises his team’s effort against St. Cloud Tech

It didn’t take Alexandria football coach Mike Empting long to think of the main reason his team was able to control its playoff opener against St. Cloud Tech from start to finish on Tuesday night.

The Cardinals were coming off a 42-7 loss to Brainerd in the regular-season finale where penalties and turnovers killed any chance they had of staying in the game. Less than a week later, it was penalties and turnovers that told the story again. Only this time, it was the absence of those two things that led to a 39-12 win for Alexandria.

“I think the biggest thing in that game is we didn’t make mistakes,” Empting said this afternoon. “We didn’t do things to hurt ourselves. We sustained drives. Defense just played outstanding from the beginning and set our offense up with short fields…but we had just one turnover, and I believe it was on our opening possession. We had limited penalties. We didn’t do those things that hurt us during critical times in the regular season.”

Empting said Alexandria’s defense played with discipline the entire night. The Cardinals allowed just 35 yards of total offense in the opening half. They held the Tigers scoreless until the game was already decided in the fourth quarter.

Tech finished the night with 185 passing yards but just 62 yards on the ground. It didn’t help the Tigers’ cause that their all-time leading rusher Jacob Peterson had to watch from the sideline after suffering a broken leg in the regular-season finale against Rocori. That obviously hurt the Tigers’ chances, but Empting credited his players and his defensive coaches for his team’s ability to completely shut down Tech’s ground game.

“Peterson absolutely is a great running back, a great athlete,” Empting said. “He does things, makes people miss and all that, but on the other side of it, our guys played with tremendous leverage all night long. There was just nothing there for the Tech running game.”

The Cardinals know they have to play with that same discipline and have multiple guys around the ball in a rematch against Moorhead on Saturday night. The Spuds’ senior running back Chase Morlock is one of the best backs in the state this season after putting up 22 touchdowns through the regular season.

The Cardinals know what he brings to the table after their week seven loss to Moorhead. Alexandria was able to keep him out of the end zone, but Morlock ran for 142 yards to help his team stay unbeaten with a 25-15 win.

“He’s a very good running back, catches the ball too,” Empting said. “They find ways to get him the ball, but in the same respect, you have to defend the play that’s coming at you and be a solid tackler. That’s what we were able to do the first time we played them. We tackled very well. When the play is defended correctly and you have great leverage, then it’s up to the players to execute and make the tackles.”

Alexandria only lost that game by 10 points despite losing five fumbles to the Spuds. The Cardinals feel like if they don’t beat themselves, they will have every opportunity to stay in the game and have a chance to win it on Saturday night.

“Even going into the first game against Moorhead, it’s an offense that we match up well against,” Empting said. “We’ve done pretty well defending against every type of offense except one, (the zone-read). I think the guys feel good. I think they recognize the first time around against them, we turned it over five times. Three of those were inside our own 20, which set up your opponent with short fields. We kind of gave one away, and if we don’t do those things to beat ourselves, we feel like we will be right there.”

 

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.”

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.”

Knoblach makes immediate impact in return from surgery

Every athlete wants to return from injury as quickly as possible, but Alexandria’s Nick Knoblach had a little extra motivation.

Knoblach had to watch for three weeks as a young Cardinals defense struggled to learn on the fly against some good offenses from the Central Lakes Conference. All the while, the senior cornerback who played an integral role on this team as a junior felt like he could help if he could just get back on the field.

Senior cornerback Nick Knoblach defended St. Cloud Apollo’s Noel Teigen on a jump ball along the sidelines during the Cardinals’ homecoming game on Saturday. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Knoblach and his coaches weren’t exactly sure when that would happen after he underwent hernia surgery on August 21. Recovery time was expected to be 4-6 weeks. He pushed himself through rehab to make sure it was closer to four, and sure enough, on Saturday afternoon he lined up in the secondary and helped the Cardinals put together their best defensive game of the season in a 21-7 win over St. Cloud Apollo.

“It was four weeks exactly last Tuesday,” Knoblach said. “I felt great today. Obviously it’s still going to be a little sore, but it’s just something you got to play through and deal with.”

Knoblach didn’t waste any time making an impact in the Alexandria win. He made a great break on a ball in the second half when the Cardinals were still clinging to a one-possession lead. Knoblach read the route and came a long ways to get in front of an Apollo receiver for an interception that was one of five takeaways on the day for the Alexandria defense.

“Those are the types of things we’ve been missing that he brings back to our defense a little bit,” head coach Mike Empting said. “You look at our defensive backs. We have some juniors and seniors playing in our defensive backfield, but again, Nate Huss is really the only other player who had some experience there last year.”

Knoblach lined up with an outside receiver during Alexandria’s game against Apollo on Saturday. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Knoblach’s experience on the back end of the defense was something the coaches knew they would miss early on. Add the athleticism and leadership abilities that he brings to the team as a captain, and it was a blow that Empting knew would be hard to overcome.

“He’s that leader,” he said. “He’s the one coming back who had a lot of experience back there. His presence showed right away in his first game back today.”

The importance of leadership on a young team is something Empting has emphasized since the beginning of camp. Knoblach provided that before the injury and then during the recovery as he worked to get back on the field to help his teammates.

“He was really motivated to get back,” Empting said. “He wanted to be out there with the guys. I’m sure it was difficult to watch the struggles that his teammates were going through this season and not being able to do anything about it. I’m sure he wanted to get back out there as quickly as he could.”

 

Cards focus on fundamentals after lopsided loss to Rocori

Alexandria football coach Mike Empting had never been a part of a loss like the 43-0 beating his team took at Rocori last Friday night, which made knowing how to handle it with his players a learning situation.

In the end, he determined the best way to move forward was to make sure they didn’t look back. The Alexandria coaching staff hasn’t watched any film from that loss to the Spartans. They haven’t shown any footage to their players. And after addressing a few things in the locker room, the coaching staff decided it wouldn’t do anybody any good to dwell on what had just happened.

Alexandria head coach Mike Empting talked things over in between plays with junior quarterback John Vogeler during the Cardinals’ season opener against St. Cloud Tech. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“I don’t know if there is going to be much good taken from that,” Empting said. “The kids know. They know we can’t fumble the ball that many times. They know you can’t give up big plays on defense. If a kid gets beat deep, he knows that. You’re not doing him any good by beating him up more three or four days after that.”

Instead, Empting said the focus in practice leading up to another road game against a 2-0 Fergus Falls team has been teaching. Empting feels the most important thing for his team right now is to concentrate on themselves rather than focusing on anything their opponents do.

That is one of the biggest lessons learned from a disheartening loss to Rocori. Empting said the Spartans were as athletic and explosive on offense as he expected. He knew leading up to the game that being out of position on defense would mean a lot of big-play possibilities. That’s exactly what happened as the Spartans connected on six scoring plays of 17 yards or more.

“Some of the things that they did, just running play action right at our linebackers and hitting little seam routes right behind them, that’s just inexperience on the part of our kids not seeing that play very often,” Empting said. “They threw a lot at our young linebackers. Things like double screens, slip screens, their zone read option. That’s a lot for those young guys to try and take in.”

A lot of these guys didn’t see those kind of plays playing at the freshman level last year. Now as sophomores, they are being asked to recognize them early as the play unfolds on the field.

“We’re asking a lot of kids to move from the freshmen level to varsity and know how to react to that,” Empting said.

Practice for the Cardinals this week has focused a lot more on what they can do to get better than anything Fergus Falls might do on Friday night. The Otters are fresh off two straight one-point wins over Sauk Rapids-Rice (28-27) and Willmar (21-20). The Otters have some early-season momentum and if the Cardinals are going to stop that, they know they need to clean up a lot of things on both sides of the ball.

“Offensively, we haven’t spent a lot of time on what Fergus Falls is going to do,” Empting said. “Defensively, they run the same things we do. But we just got back to doing what we do. We have so many fundamental problems out  there on the offensive side that we just had to get back to the very basics. Defensively, I think we’re in that same spot.”

Empting said his players have responded well to that approach in practice this week. He credited his seniors and his captains for keeping some of the younger players’ spirits up after the loss to Rocori. Ultimately, he hopes that leads to plenty of improvements on Friday night.

“I think a win would mean a lot to the team’s psyche,” Empting said. “But I always tell the kids that you can’t evaluate a season as it goes along. You have to play it out and then look back, see how all the other teams did that you played against. We had a relatively close game against [St. Cloud] Tech. Then we come out against Rocori and you think what kind of team are we, really? I think it would just be good to play well [against Fergus Falls]. Not turn it over and not give up big plays defensively.”

 

Osakis’ Zimmel shows little rust returning from an ACL tear

Osakis’ Kilar Zimmel was walking on crutches and forced to miss a week’s worth of school after coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee a little more than seven months ago.

That’s hard to believe after watching him fly all over the football field last Friday night. Zimmel could be spotted almost everywhere during his team’s 35-14 win over New York Mills. He returned punts, played free safety on defense and lined up on the outside as this team’s go-to receiver on offense. So much for easing his way back into things.

Zimmel went up over the defense in his attempt to bring down a pass near the goal line during the Silverstreaks’ win over New York Mills last Friday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Going from being completely injured, sitting on my bed and out from school for a week and coming back and being this physical, it’s nice. I feel great. My legs still get a little bit tired…but I came back hard, and I’m happy with how I came back.”

It was a much longer process than he ever imagined at first. Osakis was playing a basketball game at Upsala on January 3 when Zimmel went up to try and block a shot on a fastbreak. He hyper-extended his left knee when he landed.

“We thought it was just a minor knee strain,” he said. “So I was at practice every day at basketball, shooting around, being with the team thinking I was going to be coming back in a little while. Then the MRI showed it was an actual ACL tear.”

Zimmel went in for surgery on February 3. Two days later he went to his first day of rehab. Instead of a few weeks as originally thought, it would take more than six months to regain the strength and balance that he had lost in the knee. Every workout he did was done with the goal of returning for the start of his senior year of football in mind.

“As soon as it happened last winter, he talked to me and the first thing he said was, ‘They said I’ll be ready for football,’ ” Osakis head coach Bill Infanger said. “He’s taking care of himself by wearing the knee brace now at practice and doing all the right things to get himself ready to go.”

Zimmel said the knee brace has slowed him down a little bit, but other than that, he feels the same way he did before the injury. He showed he still has plenty of athleticism when he went up over a New York Mills’ defender to haul in a 31-yard pass near the goal line last Friday. That set up a touchdown run that made it 21-0 in the first half. Zimmel also had one of four interceptions for the Silverstreaks that night.

“He’s doing great,” Infanger said. “The thing he’s got left to bring back is maybe a little bit of speed that he had last year that we’re not seeing yet, but his athleticism hasn’t changed at all. We’ve always felt he’s one of the best guys at going up and getting the ball that we’ve had in this program in a long time. We want to give him a lot of opportunities to make plays like he did tonight.”

That’s exactly what Zimmel wanted to hear coming into this season. Most ACL tears take 6-9 months to recover from. He pushed through his rehab to make sure he returned on the shorter end of that timetable.

“As soon as I knew it was an ACL tear, I knew it was at least six months,” Zimmel said. “That put me through baseball, so I needed to get ready for football, get bigger, stronger, faster. I rehabbed and then  worked in the weight room this summer with all the guys.”

All that work paid off when he took the field on August 30 for the season opener. Zimmel never let fear of missing his senior year enter his mind during the recovery process. Now that he’s back, he takes the field with the same approach.

“I’m not thinking about it,” he said. “The first game, I worried about it the night before. Game day came, I didn’t even think about it. It doesn’t bother me.”