When Wrenshall cancelled its football season this fall and Cromwell-Wright found themselves with an opening in their schedule, Cardinals Coach Jeff Gronner knew exactly what he wanted to do.
Go back home.
Gronner had been in contact with his hometown of Underwood, Minn., and when the small western-Minnesota nine-man school saw Laporte drop off their own schedule during the same week as the Cardinals, both Gronner and the Rockets made sure to book each other quickly.
For Gronner, it was a cool quirk of fate. Not only did Gronner graduate from Underwood in 1993, but he was a defensive end on the Rockets’ first-ever state tournament team in 1992. His family still lives there, and their next-door neighbor is Brian Hovland, a current Rockets assistant coach.
If that weren’t enough, Gronner explained that it’s “Underwood Days” in town this weekend. After the two teams collide Friday, Gronner will stay for the weekend to celebrate his father’s 70th birthday with plenty of family.
“It should be an exciting time,” said Gronner, 40, who admitted he doesn’t get back to his alma mater all that often.
“This will be just my second time this summer,” he said.
In fact, this is just the second time the Cardinals and Rockets have ever played. The tiny towns separated by 160 miles and three hours last met under the Metrodome in a 2010 state semifinal that Cromwell-Wright won 18-12 that year, en route to claiming their school’s fourth state championship.
That said, you can bet this weekend’s matchup won’t be one to miss between these pair of prestigious state powers.
The Cardinals, ranked sixth in the latest nine-man polls, are returning after their 16th state tournament run last fall and are unbeaten — obviously — in their first two games thus far. They have scored 81 points already, while allowing just 12.
Underwood, meanwhile, is rated eighth and they, too, are unscathed this fall. Averaging more than 48 points per game so far, they’ve beaten both foes by 35 or more. The Rockets have been to the past two state tournaments, only losing to Grand Meadow — which has won the past two state titles. Gronner said Underwood was the only one to give the champs a game.
Gronner, as excited as he is to return home to his town of 341 people, said Friday’s game is what he’s anticipating most.
“They’re good,” Gronner said of Underwood. “They have most of their guys back. It’s going to be a good test — an early-season challenge for us to see how good we really are.”
Still, in this scheduling occurrence, there are no losers.
Welcome home Coach Gronner, welcome home.