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Family-centered Cardinals cruise by young Wrens team

Like many aspiring boys basketball players in the small town of Cromwell, Zion Smith remembers spending long days in his driveway shooting hoops with his father, Pete.

Yet, contrasting to other young boys’ dads, Pete Smith is the Cardinals’ all-time boys’ scoring leader at the small school. Graduating in 1993, Smith tallied 1,501 total points.

Zion, now an athletic, 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior, tallied a game-best 14 points in Cromwell-Wright’s latest 68-21 win over Polar League visitor Wrenshall last Friday, but son doesn’t soon have any plans on catching up to pop’s record.

“You never know, but I think I have about 900 to go,” said Smith with a chuckle. “I’m content with where I am at.”

Unlike his father, who played guard, Zion — also the quarterback of the town’s football team — is an efficient forward, playing under longtime Cards coach Bill Pocernich.

Pocernich, too — like Smith and so many other Cromwell-Wright boys and girls sports-playing families in the tiny community — also have connections through blood.

Pocernich’s wife, Marcia, coaches the sixth-grade girls basketball team in town, while his daughter, Andrea, plays. His freshman son, Marcus, is the starting point on his varsity, a team that has now won five of their first eight tilts.

While’s Smith’s father was a star, Zion also currently has younger siblings playing in sixth and eighth grade, along with the junior varsity programs. Zion’s senior teammate, Tyler Randall, also has a little sister in fourth grade who one day hopes to be playing for girls varsity coach Jeff Gronner.

It doesn’t stop there, as Gronner’s junior daughter, Bailey, also plays, while he has five Hakamaki relatives listed and another playing for Pocernich’s wife. That’s only naming several families in the community linked by sports.

Both Pocernich and Gronner referee weekend youth events, along with their kids, while Smith said he also officiates junior high games to give back to the program. He noted it’s often he sees the same kids sitting in the bleachers cheering on the Cardinals just days after he referees them.

“I think it’s a neat experience for them, and then for us, to have our little sibling come watch us,” Smith said. “There’s always a bunch of them sitting together in the corner watching us. It’s a good experience for all of them.”

The 6-foot-5, high-flying Randall — the only one on the team that can dunk the basketball — agreed with Smith.

“It’s nice to see young kids looking up and watching us and us being role models for them,” said Randall, remembering when he used to go to Cardinals games a youngster. “I would always enjoy watching the older guys.”

Pocernich said Smith, Randall and fellow senior Carter Karppinen are the 5-3 Cardinals’ top scorers, averaging anywhere from 15 to 20 points a night. Last week, though, nine players were in the final box score in a game the Cards led 38-13 by half and never were threatened by the Wrens.

While he noted the above three were his “leaders,” Pocernich said juniors Sam Kemper, Alek Striowski, Ryan Juntunen, Sawyer Strelnieks and his son have been helping, too. He added that seniors Trace Simi, Alex Kropp and Trey Johnson are also solid, along with and foreign exchange students Elias Kukkanen and Carlos Lemoine, who also aid.

“It’s a good group,” said Pocernich, noting all the family ties over time. “I’ve coached a lot of brothers and cousins.”

Wrenshall (0-8) meanwhile, is coached by Jon Bartczak, who after assisting, has taken over for former Troy Powers.

A season ago, the Wrens had 12 seniors, and this year, have zero. On top of that, lone veteran sophomore Tyler Kelley broke his wrist in their first game. That led to eighth-grader Randy Wimmer being their high-scorer last week.

“We are beyond young,” said Bartczak. “But we’re just staying positive and setting realistic goals for each game.”