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Cardinals take new path for old goal

Jeff Gronner’s Cromwell-Wright girls basketball team doesn’t open the Section 5A playoffs until tonight (7 p.m. Thursday, March 3) when they host rival McGregor, but in a way the Cardinals began their push toward the postseason a week early.

Because of a late opening on their schedule last Friday, Gronner bused his girls nearly three hours southwest to Sauk Centre, Minn., where his No. 9 Class A Cardinals got a much-needed challenge from the host Mainstreeters, which are ranked No. 2 in Class AA and are unbeaten in Minnesota so far.

Gronner’s Cromwell-Wright group — as talented as any team in this area — lost 79-72, but the experience was very effective.

“It was a packed house — I’d say at least 500 people — and a majority cheering against us,” said Gronner. “Even though we lost, there were a lot more positives out of it than negatives.”

Until the Mainstreeters, the Cardinals (23-3) hadn’t lost since a Jan. 21 setback to Class AA’s No. 9 Esko, while Class A’s No. 2 Mountain Iron-Buhl was the team’s other defeat on Jan 7.

Speaking of MIB, the Rangers are the five-time defending 7A champs, most recently beating the Cardinals a year ago in the final. An encore won’t happen there, as Cromwell-Wright was moved to 5A, and seeks its first state berth since 2004.

That’s a long ways away noted Gronner, whose group is keyed by junior scoring leader Chelsea Swatek — one of five Cardinals who shoot 40 percent or higher from 3-point land. An abundance of Hakamaki relatives — five on Gronner’s roster — and his junior daughter, Bailey, are also effective.

No. 7-ranked, fellow section top seed and two-time title-holding Browerville (22-3) are the team the Cardinals want to face. The Tigers’ starting five has roughly 7,000 total career points.

“They’re the favorite,” Gronner said. “And we’re going to have to beat some good teams along the way to get [to them].”

“State has been our goal this whole season,” added senior Kiiera Anderson. “We’re excited. I think that we can do it.”

In 7A, it’s MIB’s sixth straight title to lose, but they may run into No. 3 South Ridge in the semis. Led by 1,000-point scorer Krystal Karppinen, the Panthers (16-9) faced No. 6 Fond du Lac Ojibwe (8-10) Wednesday as the Pine Journal went to press, and they don’t fear MIB.

“We’re going to give it our best,” said South Ridge coach Lisa Johnson earlier this week, “and see what we can do.”

Another promising girls playoff game on Wednesday was No. 4 Carlton (10-16) and fifth-seeded Wrenshall (9-16) in Proctor. The Wrens, keyed by dual 1,000-point seniors Delaney Kittel and Shana Laveau, want to avenge two earlier Bulldogs losses, including the Brown Jug.

“They’ll be ready,” Wrenshall coach Sheri Nelson said.