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Cardinals move onto final against talented Tigers

PEQUOT LAKES—As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard of Tuesday’s Section 5A girls basketball semifinal game between Cromwell-Wright and Verndale, Cardinals coach Jeff Gronner turned to assistant Dave Foster, smiled and the two longtime coaches shared a handshake.

A similar — and perhaps a little more joyous — scene happened in 2010 when Gronner and Foster jumped into each other’s arms after they won the Nine-man state football title.

That’s not to say Cromwell-Wright is going to claim the Class A state girls hoops title, but the Cardinals sure got a big step closer Tuesday when they held off the pesky Pirates 87-75 in a high-scoring playoff affair in Pequot Lakes, Minn.

Top-seeded Cromwell-Wright (26-3) had their hands full and then some from No. 2 Verndale (22-6), as the back-and-forth, fast-paced tilt featured four ties and 13 lead changes.

Yet, none was bigger than when junior Chelsea Swatek’s bucket with 8:53 remaining put the Cardinals ahead 66-65 and kick-started a 23-10 run that eventually put the game away.

Cromwell-Wright, in their first year in Section 5A after being reassigned from 7A, had control most of the way, leading 39-35 at halftime, but Verndale never seemed to go away. The Pirates led several times in the second, but couldn’t capitalize.

“I thought when we had the lead we were OK, but we got tired,” Verndale coach Art Schluttner said of his team, led by Jordyn Glenz and Shania Glenz’s 18 points each.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, with so much depth, didn’t fade. Sophomore Teana Hakamaki led the charge with a game-high 26 points, while Swatek added 22 and Gronner’s daughter, junior Bailey Gronner, chipped in 15 in a balanced attack.

Plenty of red-garbed Cromwell-Wright faithful made the near-two-hour trek west, as they stood in applause after the hard-fought game.

Expect the same for Friday’s 7 p.m. final at Crosby-Ironton when they face Browerville-Eagle Valley (25-3). The top-seeded Tigers are the two-time defending champs, No. 7 in the state — the Cardinals are No. 9 — and sport a dizzying 7,000 total career points between just their starting five players.

But Cromwell-Wright, 7A runners-up to Mountain Iron-Buhl last year, beat the Tigers in a summer league game last June.

“We’re not afraid of them,” said Gronner afterward. “It’s a tall task, but we’re not going to back down from anyone.”

The team got blue medals for winning their portion of the sub-section Tuesday, but that’s only half of what they want.

“We want another,” said Teana Hakamaki, with a smile.

“Our main goal is to get to that state tournament,” Swatek said, seeking the team’s first trip since 2004. “I know I’ll be ready.”