As red practice jerseys, helmets and pads continued to aggressively collide with each other Tuesday morning in Cromwell, it was evident that high school football season was underway in the small town.
But like every fall, this tiny community has big-time expectations.
Cromwell-Wright has written chapter after chapter on how to excel on the gridiron, advancing to 16 state tournaments, appearing in eight Prep Bowls and winning 9-Man titles in 1995, '96, '98 and 2010.
And although it is still premature to tell where the Cardinals will fly this season, one can only predict bright things, being this coach Jeff Gronner's deepest group since taking over as head coach in 2004.
Gronner, in his 13th season at the helm, has 31 players in his program, including 13 seniors, nine of which have seen significant varsity time. Six of those nine, including senior captains Zion Smith, Wyatt Susa, Alek Striowski and Dillon Hoff, as well as classmates Eli Warpula and Sawyer Strelnieks have been starting for four seasons.
"This is the most veteran team I've ever had," said Gronner following practice Tuesday. "As far as being one of the top teams, we'll make that determination at the end of the season. We have high expectations and hope to go deep into November."
That didn't happen last year when the Cardinals were upset by rival Floodwood 22-14 in the Section 5 semifinals, one year removed from a state appearance in 2014. Finishing last fall 8-2 was nice on paper, but being eliminated by mid-October isn't Cromwell-Wright tradition and has only fueled the fire for this time around.
Smith, the team's 6-foot-1, 215-pound left-handed quarterback, is one of the craftiest players in the area, with a mix a speed, power and the ability to make opponents miss. Walking slowly out of the locker room last year, he admitted it was tough, but now says that everyone is ready to move on.
"We're working hard and definitely don't want our season to end like it did last year," Smith said.
Smith, also a linebacker, handed out a few tackles with his ready-to-go teammates Tuesday morning.
"We're ready for a game now," said Gronner, whose team will travel to Isle for their season-opener next Friday, Sept. 2. "We're looking very experienced. That's a luxury that we have."
Just like the expectations the Cardinals look to live up to each fall. The challenge to repeat their school's fine football tradition is back again and has never been bigger.
"I think we're ready for that challenge," Smith said. "We're going to take it head on."
Nearly half of the Cardinals' schedule will be against Carlton County area foes, including Carlton, South Ridge and Wrenshall, as the trio of 9-man schools also returned to the gridiron last week and are readying for week one.
South Ridge finished last fall 7-3 and one round short of the Section 5 final, losing to eventual champion Silver Bay. Like Gronner, third-year coach Brent Johnson also has 31 players on his team, with just five seniors and nine graduates now gone from a season ago.
Johnson noted junior Nick Carlson, sophomore Joe Janke and senior Mark Lisic will all be contributors on a squad, like many small schools, that have an abundance of two-way players.
"We have a small group of seniors, but I think they'll be ready to step it up with these young, coachable kids," said Johnson, whose team hits the road to face Kelliher-Northome in their Sept. 2 opener. "We'll have some first-game jitters, but I think once they get on the field, they'll be fired up."
The same can be said for Carlton, a club that was 1-8 a season ago, losing their final eight contests. The Bulldogs, with 32 players in the program, are led by first-year coach Andrew Weber, who assisted under Erik Hanson the past several years.
Weber, also the school's girls basketball coach, is a young, on-the-go guy and enjoying his time head man. Tuesday evening he even attended junior high practice to help out as practices began.
"It's busy, but also exciting," said Weber, whose team will kickoff next Thursday, Sept. 1, at Mountain Iron-Buhl.
Players to watch for in Carlton include junior quarterback Jackson Mickle, as well as seniors Sam Macor, Nate Nilsen Isaiah Wallace and Keijo Day.
"They're definitely ready to go," added Weber. "We've been hitting the same guys at practice for a while. It'll be fun to see another team. We'll be excited for that first game."
That would be an understatement for nearby Wrenshall, as the small community welcomes back varsity football after cancelling the program last fall due to lack of numbers, and playing a season of junior varsity instead.
Numbers still aren't ideal for the Wrens, who are again coached by Jeremy Zywicki, now in his ninth season. Zywicki said after a recent season-ending injury, his team currently sits at 14 players. It’s a more-than-slim number for a program that will endure a three-month season and see team members playing both ways almost non-stop with only five substitutes.
Asked if his team could make it through that all, Zywicki was quick to admit: "I hope so."
Nonetheless, Zywicki loves football and loves Wrenshall. He noted his top players are senior Phil Vine, junior Tyler Kelley, his younger brother sophomore Jared Kelley and sophomore Danny Merrill. The quartet and everyone else, win or lose, will surely be putting smiles on people's faces as they come back to varsity football, after advancing to the Section 5 final in 2014 against Cromwell-Wright.
The Wrens opener is at Ogilvie next Friday, Sept. 2. Their first home game is Sept. 16 against Cromwell-Wright.
"Again, our numbers are struggling, but these kids are excited," Zywicki said. "The community is excited. Your high school team is back playing on Friday nights. Hopefully everyone comes out and supports us."