ESKO - Cromwell-Wright football players gathered by the southeast goal post and began singing John Denver's "Country Roads," including the lyrics, "Take me home, to the place I belong."
It's an inside joke among the Cardinals and has nothing to do with the state tournament, but the state tournament is where it can easily be applied as the Northeastern Minnesota football juggernaut qualified for their 19th state tournament, including third straight, after ending South Ridge's season for the third straight year with a 26-8 victory in the Section 5 Nine-Man final on Friday night.
The Cardinals did it mostly without quarterback and leading tackler Drew Libbon, who was hurt on the last play of the first quarter, leading some to believe it was over after that.
"What I'm so proud of is the fact it didn't phase us," Cromwell-Wright coach Jeff Gronner said. "It hurt our offense obviously, but our defense outscored our offense. They just played a fantastic defensive game, and I couldn't be more proud of them."
Senior Kannon Korpela led the way with 16 carries for 125 yards, with two touchdowns running and another returning a fumble. Cameron Cahoon also had a 58-yard interception return for a touchdown as the Cardinals (11-0) advance to play the Section 6 champion NCE/U-H (10-0) Nov. 9 in Bemidji. South Ridge, the top seed, finished 9-1.
Libbon was part of a bit of controversy after being tossed from last week's game against Carlton for punching, only to have it basically overturned as the play in question was reviewed and overturned.
"It was a hands to the face and definitely could have been a penalty," Gronner said. "The Carlton players and coaches told the ref after the game that it wasn't a punch, and he went in and watched film, talked to the high school league about it and didn't file it. If it's not filed, he's eligible, and it wasn't filed."
This is one of Cromwell-Wright's most improbable state runs. The Cardinals only have 17 players after eight who played last year didn't come back out.
"I knew even with a small team we'd be good, but when Drew went down, I definitely had concerns," Gronner said. "I was extremely concerned, and I honestly, in my head, didn't think we'd win it at that moment, but then we got a pick-6 and our defense took over. As important as he is to our offense, he's as important to our defense."
South Ridge coach Brent Johnson downplayed the so-called Libbon controversy, saying they accepted what happened with the officiating and said the Panthers would rather have won with Libbon at QB.
"If we beat him, we should have beat him with him," Johnson said.
Joe Janke rushed for 102 yards to lead South Ridge, but it took 35 carries to get it. Janke came in having rushed for more than 2,000 yards, but the Cardinals were swarming and tenacious on defense.
"They stuffed him," Johnson said. "They knew he was getting the ball, and we tried to get the ball to different backs, but they came here to play."
South Ridge 0-0-0-8-8
CW - Kannon Korpela 51 run (pass failed)
CW - Cameron Cahoon 58 interception return (pass failed)
CW - Korpela 45 fumble return (Korpela run)
SR - Matt Clark 1 run (Jayton Nelson pass from Riley Kinsley)
CW - Korpela 2 run (kick failed)
Mountain Iron-Buhl 20, Cook County 12
MIB senior quarterback Joe Buffetta grew up watching his cousin, Matt Niskanen, quarterback the Rangers to the state tournament when Buffetta was 4 or 5 years old. Now it's Buffetta's turn as MIB captured the Section 7 championship in the early game of a nine-man doubleheader in Esko.
"He was my role model all the way up," Buffetta said of Niskanen.
Buffetta, one of seven seniors for the Rangers, scored a pair of touchdowns, including a 74-yarder, as MIB (9-2) avenged a 22-0 regular-season loss to the top-seeded Vikings (8-2) on Oct. 12. The Rangers advance to play Stephen-Argyle (11-0) Nov. 10 in Bemidji in the Nine-Man state quarterfinals, MIB's first state appearance since 2010.
"We didn't play like we were capable the first time we played Cook County," Buffetta said. "We did in this game. We played our hearts out and left it out on the field."
Perhaps it's a regional trickle down effect, but both these teams had an offensive style similar to that at Minnesota Duluth, with quarterbacks not just commanding the huddle and the passing game, but being the bulk of the running game.
Buffetta is slippery, stopping and stuttering his way pass would-be tacklers, while his counterpart, Cook County senior Josh Prom, was hard to bring down as well.
"Our blocking was awesome," Buffetta said. "Our line and receivers, everybody blocked perfectly."
Buffetta is being too humble. The multisport standout has a knack for making guys miss, and the quickness to run away from others.
Buffetta was asked if Niskanen, now an NHL veteran defenseman, would be proud of him, and Buffetta shook his head "yes."
Cook County 6-0-6-0-12
MIB - Joe Buffetta 6 run (Buffetta run)
CC - Josh Prom 1 run (run failed)
MIB - Buffetta 74 run (pass failed)
MIB - Dillon Drake 6 run (run failed)
CC - Jack Haussner 12 pass from Prom (run failed)