9-MAN FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS
Even though every team likes to win big, Cromwell-Wright football coach Jeff Gronner doesn't mind a challenge ... as long as things turn out right for him in the end.
From his point of view, the South Ridge Panthers were a formidable opponent — and from his point of view, the ending was worth the effort.
The Cardinals (10-0) led by only two points at halftime before pulling away in the second half to beat the Panthers (6-4) 34-22.
"It was a very physical game," Gronner said. "It was a tough game for us. South Ridge was a challenge. They gave us a lot of problems, and we had to battle right to the very end to pull out the win."
Drew Libbon scored on a one-yard run for Cromwell-Wright in the first period only to see Joe Janke equalize for the Panthers with a 25-yard burst to make it 8-8 after one quarter. Nic Johnson scored from 14 yards out in the second quarter for the Cardinals before Nick Carlson cut Cromwell-Wright's lead to 16-14 with a five-yard burst before halftime.
The difference between the teams was a failed two-point conversion after Carlson's touchdown, giving Cromwell-Wright a two-point lead at the break.
"It was a matchup thing," Gronner said in regard to the tense first half. "They (South Ridge) were very physical and bigger than we were. They were getting their five to six yards a carry in the first half and keeping our offense off the field."
After a third-quarter safety increased Cromwell-Wright's lead to 18-14, Libbon scored again on a 33-yard third-quarter run to make it 26-14 after three quarters. But the Panthers fought back: Carlson scoring again from five yards out with a two-point conversion making the score 26-22 in the fourth quarter.
Libbon found Nic Johnson with a 30-yard touchdown pass in the late going to — finally — seal the win over a very game South Ridge team.
"Initially I felt relief," Gronner said. "That was a very good team that we beat. We're excited to be back in the section title game with the chance to go to state, but there's a feeling of achievement for having won that game. They are definitely one of the best teams we've played."
Friday night's section final in Esko will pit the Cardinals against another good team in Wrenshall (8-2), a 54-12 winner over Floodwood in its own section final.
The teams met Oct. 18 in Wrenshall, with Cromwell-Wright winning 39-8 in a game that Gronner said was closer than the score.
"That game it was 10-8 at halftime and Wrenshall scored first," Gronner said. "We made some adjustments in the second half and held them to one first down in the second half. So we figured it out, but they are a good team."
Gronner respects the way the Wrens run their offense. Wrenshall has topped 30 points in all of its wins, 40 twice, 50 twice, 60 twice and had a season-high of 72 points in a win over Onamia in the third game of the season. Wrenshall also started the season with three straight shutouts — not bad at all for a program that could not field a varsity team a few short years ago due to lack of numbers.
"South Ridge exposed some things we need to get better at," Gronner said. "But Wrenshall is a solid team. They don't give up a lot of points. They make you work for everything you get, they are a sound defensive team and a good tackling team as well."
The game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. in Esko.
"We're going to have to win the turnover game," Gronner said. "The last time we played Wrenshall we fumbled on our first play from scrimmage and they scored off it. That's an important one for us. If we keep the ball and play like we can play, I like our chances."
IF YOU GO
Section 5 9-MAN Championship Game:
Cromwell-Wright vs. Wrenshall
7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3
at Esko Stadium
Listen at WKLK 96.5 FM