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Wrens keep it all in the family

Brothers Jared (left) and Tyler Kelley, both running backs on the Wrenshall football team, have led the Wrens to the Section 5 9-Man playoffs. Steve Kuchera/Forum News Service

Wrenshall football is a family affair for the Kelley brothers and their cousin, Brennan, thanks in part to a deal made among cousins. Tyler and Jared agreed to play baseball if Brennan would come out for football.

Such is life at one of the Northland's smallest schools. If the Kelley brothers had to bide their time on the diamond in exchange for one more body on the gridiron, well, why not? In 2015, a year removed from going 8-3 and reaching the Section 5 Nine-Man final, the Wrens were unable to field a varsity team. Not enough players.

Tyler was a sophomore then, Jared a freshman. They learned how tenuous football can be at a school with less than 100 students. Wrenshall returned last fall, winning three games and showing steady improvement. The Wrens had some talent, but they still weren't racing to order more uniforms to accommodate an influx of participants. By playing baseball, Tyler and Jared, who likely would have preferred to spend their spring fishing, knew they could boost the roster by at least one.

The trade-off has paid off. Wrenshall is 7-2, and a Kelley-infused backfield had the Wrens scoring more than 50 points a night earlier this season.

As the brothers bantered following a practice earlier this month, Jared demurred when asked to name the family's best running back. Tyler did not. Eventually, the back and forth gave way to a compromise.

"I'm stronger, but he does have more yards per carry," said the 5-foot-7 Jared, a junior.

That prompted an immediate objection from Tyler, who needed to amend the seconds-old compromise.

Jared might be stronger, but "that's because I break my arms all the time," Tyler said.

Indeed, he's broken each arm twice, to go along with a broken leg and broken vertebrae in his back.

Two things they both agree on: They're better together, and this season's success wasn't unexpected. The Wrens finished 3-6 in 2016, but they hinted at their potential in a first-round playoff loss to South Ridge. The Panthers had routed Wrenshall 48-20 11 days earlier earlier, but needed a late touchdown pass to survive the rematch, 18-14.

"After that game, we knew what we were capable of," Tyler said. "And we just expected it this year."

But, he says, the Wrens didn't take anything for granted over the offseason. It was, after all, only two short years ago that the program was in flux.

"It didn't just come to us," Tyler said. "We put in the work. We were in the weight room all summer."

Tyler and Jared have shared a backfield since elementary school. While most nine-man teams — heck, most high school teams — have one featured back, defenses have to pay equal attention to the brothers. The guessing game can freeze defenders just long enough to spring a hole.

While Tyler is shifty with first-step quickness, Jared runs with a little more power. He isn't afraid to lower his shoulder and take on a would-be tackler.

"They complement each other very well in that regard," Wrenshall coach Jeremy Zywicki said.

The same could be said about their personalities. Tyler is outgoing, gregarious and quick with a quip, which often elicits a roll of the eyes and a wry smile from the more reserved Jared.

Wrenshall lost to Cromwell-Wright on Oct. 18, but pummeled neighboring Carlton 57-14 Tuesday. They play Floodwood in Saturday's semifinal at 2 p.m.

A loss in the postseason will end the Kelley brothers' time as football teammates. Tyler is one of four seniors on a 17-player roster. Likewise for Brennan, who has morphed into a running threat himself.

Jared will have to carry the load next year with the Wrens down to one Kelley.

"It's going to be a little weird," said Jared. "If we have to get a yard, normally, the ball goes to Tyler and he gets it. That's going to have to be me next year."