The Cromwell-Wright Cardinals took the fun out of the Section 5 Nine-Man football championship game early for the South Ridge Panthers.
Just a few minutes into the game, the Cardinals (11-0) were up 14-0 after short touchdown runs by quarterback Zion Smith and running back Dillon Hoff, and Cromwell-Wright coach Jeff Gronner was feeling good about his team’s start.
“I figured that if we played like we were capable, we were a better team,” Gronner said. “And then we scored two touchdowns, scored on our first possession and got a short field, and we were OK.”
The Cardinals were better than OK, as things turned out.
Nic Johnson added a 27-yard run before the end of the first quarter for a 21-0 lead, and Smith threw two of his three touchdown passes for a 34-0 halftime advantage. Cromwell-Wright cruised in the second half, winning 54-0 and setting up a state quarterfinal matchup with Ely at Public Schools Stadium in Duluth Friday night.
Smith threw for three scores and 107 yards, hitting Alex Striowski once and Johnson twice — while also rushing for 101 yards and the first touchdown of the game.
“He (Smith) has control at the line of scrimmage,” Gronner said. “He’s great at seeing the defense — he sees things out there that nobody on the sideline can see.”
Cameron Cahoon and Isaac Shelton added second half touchdown runs for the Cardinals, who move on to face another undefeated team in the Timberwolves (10-0) Friday.
“Ely will be the first team we play which can stay with us physically,” Gronner said. “It’s going to be a different game when we play them.”
The Cromwell-Wright defense smothered the Panthers offense, recording four interceptions and pitching a shutout.
“South Ridge broke a couple of runs and pass plays,” Gronner said, “but we eventually made the tackles and then we made the defensive stands.”
Hoff and Cahoon combined for another 197 yards on the ground, with Hoff contributing 126, to send the Cardinals on their way.
And Gronner knows that his team’s success depends on its quarterback, Smith. “He’s our coach on the field,” Gronner said. “He sees what’s available from the defense, gets us into the right play and makes our jobs as coaches easier.”
Smith has grown very adept at reading defenses.
“He has total freedom to audible any time he wants,” Gronner said. “We haven’t needed to do that much but a few times he’s called a no-huddle, hurry-up offense and he calls all of it.”
That trust between coach and quarterback might mean a lot where the Cardinals are headed.
“Ely has an experienced quarterback and so do we,” Gronner said. “I’ve given him (Smith) a lot of free rein on calling things.”
Gronner knows that Ely will be a definite step up for his team.
“They block and tackle well, they aren’t flashy, their running back is very athletic and any time he touches the ball he can take it to the house. That type of speed, we haven’t seen yet this year,” said Gronner.
The Cardinals are one step away from an early-season goal — the state semifinals and finals will be played at the new U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
“We have no trouble motivating our players,” he said. “That was our goal from the beginning. Now this is the week we earn that, and we’re here. Hopefully we will take care of our business. Whichever team controls the line of scrimmage is going to have a major advantage.”
IF YOU GO
Who: Cromwell-Wright vs. Ely
What: Class Nine-Man State Football Quarterfinal
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11
Where: Public Schools Stadium, Duluth
Something will have to give here, as the unbeaten Cardinals (11-0) and unblemished Timberwolves (10-0) collide in this must-see Nine-Man meeting.
Cromwell-Wright is a small school as storied as they come, making their 17th state tournament trip this fall. They also own Prep Bowl titles in 1995, '96, '98 and 2010, and four runner-up finishes to add to their crammed trophy case.
The Cards have yet to allow a point in the first quarter this season, but Ely is looking to change that. This is the Wolves' fourth state appearance in the last five seasons.
The winner moves on to next Thursday's state semifinal at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 17 at the Minnesota Vikings' new U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Radio: WKLK 96.5 FM
Quotable: "It's two teams who are used to a lot of rewards," said Cardinals coach Jeff Gronner, “... and two who will be playing for a very big prize in U.S. Bank Stadium."