Cardinals cement themselves atop school history
MINNEAPOLIS—After placing third at last weekend's Class A state girls basketball tournament — the highest finish in Cromwell-Wright school history — Cardinals coach Jeff Gronner and his team received a trophy, medals and a white commemorative basketball.
The way they shot 3-pointers this season, however, perhaps it should have been gold.
That's because following their 78-51 mauling of Maranatha Christian Academy at Concordia University in St. Paul last Saturday morning in the third-place game, Cromwell-Wright was atop plenty of record books for its season's performance behind the arc. After all, it's where they made their living.
In fact, there's been no school of any size in any year better during a single season. Following their 10-for-19 performance against the Mustangs last weekend, the Cardinals counted 343 3-pointers on the season. That's an average of almost 11 per evening — for every one of their 32 games.
And in their opening-round rout of Red Lake last Thursday, Cromwell-Wright tied a state tournament single-game record by making a baker's dozen worth of triples. Their 29 total long balls in this year's three state playoff games also equaled a state tournament best of any school all time.
"We always have the green light," said freshman Taya Hakamaki, who sank the deep left-wing shot in front of her team's bench against Red Lake to give the Cardinals the most 3-pointers of any prep team ever.
"When we get in our groove, we all just keep feeding off of each other," added senior Chelsea Swatek.
As was evidenced with their totals in the Twin Cities last week: Gronner's daughter Bailey, as a senior, netted 10 trifectas, as did Swatek, while Hakamaki had five, her older sister Teana three, and their cousin Shaily Hakamaki sank one. Their 29-for-75 clip equated to nearly 40 percent from downtown all tournament.
Such a stat wasn't surprising for a team that sports a trio of 1,000-point scorers in Swatek, Gronner and Teana Hakamaki. Swatek, in fact, is the school's all-time scoring leader, with nearly 2,000 points. That said, Jeff Gronner noted his team was above that 40-percent mark from beyond the stipe all winter, including anywhere between the 45 and 55 percent range come the postseason.
"It sounds arrogant, but that's what we've done every game," Jeff Gronner said following their 71-41 win over Red Lake at Minneapolis' Mariucci Arena.
Yet, it was against the Warriors that the Cardinals seemingly couldn't miss. As noted of tying a single-game state best, Cromwell-Wright canned 9-of-16 long balls by halftime. Their 10 more made two days later at Concordia only solidified that this Cardinal group was special.
"We live and die by that line," said Gronner.
And it was last Friday on the Golden Gophers' raised floor at Williams Arena in Minneapolis that Cromwell-Wright endured the latter. That afternoon, facing eventual champion Goodhue — now two years running in Class A — it appeared the Cardinals couldn't have shot worse. In fact, their dismal 6-for-31 performance from deep was their lowest percentage, just 19, all winter long — by far. The result was a 70-48 defeat, their largest of the season.
"We didn't have our A game," said Gronner in the postgame press conference, not-knowingly wearing a green shirt and tie for extra luck on St. Patrick's Day.
"It didn't work," added Gronner about the shirt.
"We just weren't on," added his daughter, "especially in that game."
While the Wildcats won the semifinal seemingly untamed, they did the same against top-ranked Mountain Iron-Buhl last Saturday, rolling by the Rangers 73-51 to defend the section title for their small farming town. Goodhue's athleticism — keyed by their full-court 2-2-1 press — "was the difference maker" said Wildcats coach Josh Wieme, while both the Cardinals and Rangers were uncomfortably rushed into their shooting attempts.
Said Wieme of winning it all again: "It wasn't so much about winning a title as it was getting to play together one last time."
That's exactly what the Cardinals did last Saturday, taking home the bronze medals in the process and cementing themselves as the best the small school of only 76 students has ever seen. Cromwell-Wright also placed fourth back in 2004.
And although they came up 22 points shy of Goodhue, their aspirations had already been checked off.
"Back in our first offseason workouts in June, our first conversation and our first goal was, 'We want to get down to Williams Arena,'" Jeff Gronner said. "And we got down (there). Obviously, it's been a fantastic season."
The Cardinals concluded the season at 27-5, tying last year's school-best win total, while returning to the state tournament for a second time in as many seasons.
"This run has given these girls something to remember forever," Gronner continued.
"It was a game I will never forget, even if we didn't play our best," chimed Bailey Gronner of their 36 minutes on the nostalgic Barn's elevated surface. "This final year has been the best one yet."
Bailey will now turn her sights to Concordia College in Moorhead, where she will be a future Cobber volleyball and possibly a basketball player. Her father played football there from 1993 to 1997. Still, the younger Gronner won't forget her time in Cardinal red and white.
"I've played with most (of my teammates) my whole life, so being able to place at state with them really puts a good end to our story together," said Bailey Gronner, who graduates this spring along with Swatek and senior Taylor Lehti. "I'm probably going to miss playing with them just as much, or more, than basketball itself."
"I will miss playing with all of them so much, but am so glad we got to end it on such a good note," added Swatek, who will play the sport collegiately next year but has yet to make her final commitment. "I feel lucky."
As does Jeff Gronner, who not only took his girls to Williams Arena this March, but also last November — also along with good friend and assistant coach Dave Foster in both sports — when they brought the town's football team to the state tournament and the Minnesota Vikings' $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium.
"I've been very blessed," Gronner said earlier this month, a month that closed with a should-be golden basketball, now likely already in their trophy case.
"It's the best shooting team I've ever been around," added Gronner, whose team has made 667 3-pointers over the past two seasons. "There aren't too many teams that can put five girls on the floor that can shoot it like that."