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Cardinals dominate Ely, head to US Bank Stadium

Cromwell-Wright quarterback Zion Smith (right) and Cedric Sworski celebrate a win over the Ely Timberwolves Friday night in the Section Nine-Man championship. Dan Saletel/ 1 / 5
Cromwell-Wright’s Dillon Hoff tries to navigate around two Ely defenders on a run Friday night in the section quarterfinal matchup between the Cardinals and Timberwolves. Dan Saletel/ 2 / 5
Fans cheer the Cromwell-Wright Cardinals as the team takes a win over the Ely Timberwolves Friday night in Duluth. Dan Saletel/ 3 / 5
The Cromwell-Wright Cardinals celebrate a win over the Ely Timberwolves Friday night, sending them to US Bank Stadium for state tournament play. Dan Saletel/ 4 / 5
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The most people Cromwell-Wright football coach Jeff Gronner can ever remember paying to see a home football game was about 800 people, which filled the school field’s stands. This weekend, they’ll play at a much larger venue.

After defeating Ely 35-7 in Friday’s state nine-man quarterfinal at Duluth’s Public Schools Stadium, the Cardinals will play in the first-ever high school football game held at the palatial  $1.1 billion US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, which lists its capacity at 66,655.

Most of those seats won’t be filled, but that’s hardly the point.

“I’m ecstatic for our kids,” coach Jeff Gronner said. “Hopefully, it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us, for our seniors or our underclass. I’m happy for them. It’s going to be fun.”

Cromwell-Wright (12-0) scored early and often against the Timberwolves (11-1), and held on for the victory. The Cardinals scored on their first play from scrimmage as quarterback Zion Smith hoisted a 64-yard touchdown pass to Nic Johnson.

Cromwell-Wright then forced a three-and-out from the Ely offense, and then scored again as Smith found Alek Striowski with a 2-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 advantage in the first quarter.

“It’s just huge to play with the lead,” Gronner said. “We are up 14-zip early and that lets our guys relax and not play uptight. It’s been huge to be in the lead early every game.”

Smith’s third touchdown pass of the half, to Johnson from 43 yards out in the second quarter, made the score 22-0 at half.

Touchdown runs of 1 and 35 yards by Smith in the third and fourth quarters increased the Cromwell-Wright lead to 35-0 late in the game before Ely’s Josh Heiman scored on a 29-yard run to get the Timberwolves on the scoreboard.

That was noteworthy because it was only the second touchdown of the season allowed by Cromwell-Wright’s first-team defense, and just the second touchdown allowed by the entire team since Sept. 30.

“We made it look fairly simple at times because we executed well,” Gronner said. “Ely is a big, physical team and we didn’t have a lot of success running the ball except when Zion ran, but we knew we could take a few shots down the field and make some plays.”

The Cardinals threw only five passes all game, but three of them went for touchdowns.

Gronner also had praise for his team’s defense.

“We played as well as we could against another very good line,” he said. “We got a little tired at times, but overall defensively we did a decent job of bending but not breaking overall.”

The defense will need to stand up and be counted in Thursday’s state semifinal against Cleveland/Immanuel Lutheran (12-0), which beat Hillcrest Lutheran Academy 39-22 in its state quarterfinal. Junior quarterback Carter Kopet leads an aerial circus which will be unlike anything the Cardinals have yet faced.

Kopet has thrown for over 2,500 yards and 49 touchdowns this season.

“They have one of the best high school quarterbacks I’ve seen,” Gronner said. “He is really good, very impressive. They just chuck the ball everywhere.”

Gronner said his team will have a size advantage, which might negate the advantage to Cleveland of playing indoors with a passing attack.

“It’s going to be a conditioning thing,” he said. “Their kids are going to get tired running all those routes and it’s all the same kids that will be defending us pounding the ball at them. They are obviously a good passing team but the turf will help our speed too. They have fast kids but we have guys who are just as fast.”

It’s a bit odd to say that a Cromwell-Wright team that outscored opponents 637-65 as part of a game where the teams have scored a combined 1,206 points might rely more on its defense, but that’s likely to be true on Thursday.

“This quarterback they have, if you don’t put a lot of coverage out there, he’s going to burn you. They want to throw the ball in the middle, on the edge, they just throw. They’ll throw it at least 30 times and that’s going to make for a long game. It’s a matter of wearing them down.”

The winner of Thursday’s semifinal game will face either No. 3 Waubun or top-ranked Grand Meadow in Prep Bowl XXXV at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 25, at US Bank Stadium. Grand Meadow is in search of its fourth consecutive state title and currently holds a 48-game winning streak, an active Minnesota best.


 If You Go

Tyler Korby

WHO: Cromwell-Wright vs. Cleveland/Immanuel Lutheran

WHAT: Class Nine-Man State Football Semifinal

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 17

WHERE: U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

Something will have to give between these pair of perfect teams, as the unbeaten Cardinals (12-0) and unblemished Clippers (12-0) clash in this historic Nine-Man matchup.

Cromwell-Wright  is a small school with a big trophy case. Currently in their 17th state appearance, the No. 8 state-ranked Cardinals are seeking their ninth Prep Bowl next week, including state titles in 1995, '96, '98 and 2010, as well as four runner-up finishes.

Cleveland/Immanuel Lutheran is a cooperative program positioned just over an hour southwest of the Twin Cities. The No. 2 state-rated Clippers are centered by their pass-happy quarterback, Carter Kopet, who has a Minnesota state-record 125 career touchdown passes and he's only a junior.

Cromwell-Wright counters with a quality QB of their own in senior Zion Smith, who's tossed 31 touchdowns and no interceptions. He's also a part of a first-team defense that has allowed just two TDs all fall and a team that has given up a microscopic 15 points in their past 32 quarters, including five shutouts. The Cardinals soared by their three section opponents a combined 170-0, while they are giving up a state-best, less than six points per game.


TWITTER: @tylerkorby