Over the years on the football field, Carlton and Wrenshall have been a Nine-Man match-up to see, swapping scores between the pair of tiny towns filled with community pride.
Nowadays, that pride is at its peak, as the two tiny schools shrugged off any sign of rivalry when consolidating together to form the first-ever Carlton-Wrenshall football team this fall. The Raptors open their regular-season against South Ridge at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30, in Carlton.
Expect the bleachers at Jim Erickson Field to be full for this inaugural event. While the schools began consolidating for cross-country last season and have combined in years past for sports such as track and field, softball and more, this is a first on the gridiron.
Bulldogs mixed with Wrens, blue mixed with orange, and if you ask the players, new friends mixed with new friends.
“Our two schools have been rivals and now we’re all just buddies,” said Carlton senior Kaden Crane. “Our team chemistry is just undeniable — it’s as good as it gets.”
Wrenshall senior Randy Wimmer agreed, noting the team took to the streets together this past summer in annual parades at Carlton Daze and Wrenshall’s Brickyard Days. They also helped their communities play bingo and volunteered at the Ragnar Run. Most recently, their cheerleaders held a spaghetti dinner for them at the Wrenshall School, as togetherness permeated the room.
Crane has even gone on Chub Lake to pontoon with his freshest teammates.
“It’s been really cool to meet some new guys,” said Crane. “It’s just a thrill to be a part of.”
This all comes after several school board meetings to consolidate, something both football programs needed.
Wrenshall had just barely enough players to play last fall, and lasted just seven games — going 2-5 — before forfeiting their final regular-season contest and all of the playoffs due to lack of numbers. According to coach Jeremy Zywicki, now in his 12th season, it would have difficult to field a team this fall without combining with their neighbors.
While bodies in Wrenshall have traditionally been tough to count, Carlton — going 6-4 last year — was in the same bed not long ago, and this season, Carlton coach Jason Crane, in his second year, said the Bulldogs wouldn’t have had enough to put a junior high squad on the field if they did not consolidate.
“It’s a win-win for both programs — for the present as well as moving forward to the future,” said Coach Crane, also Kaden’s father. “It’s an exciting season and we’re looking forward to it. There have been zero hiccups. Things have been seamless.”
“If you were just passing by, you would have never guessed that these were two schools who played against each other last year,” added Zywicki. “It’s been great. I have nothing but positive things to say about it.”
And there is nothing but positives for the Raptors, who are hovering at almost 30 players — or almost three-times that at Wrenshall before.
Asked if he now gets water breaks, Wimmer said with a chuckle: “I’m not used to that at all.”
While the ultra-athletic, three-sport Wimmer will be one of the many athletes now in blue and orange, senior classmates Isaiah Johnson and Hunter Holmes also provide experience, along with Wrenshall juniors Mason Perry and Zeke Rousseau-Sheff.
From Carlton, Kaden Crane missed most of last year with an ankle injury, but is back to 100-percent to join fellow do-it-all seniors Ryan Gray, Matthew Santkuyl and Sawyer Thorman. Juniors Kristian Herman, Colin Emerson, Danny Eggert, Aaron Schilla and sophomore Joey Solomon will also contribute mightily.
“The kids have been nothing but 100-percent,” said Coach Crane, who is a co-head coach with Zywicki, along with four assistants. While Crane will lead the offensive and defensive lines, the offensive-minded Zywicki will call the plays.
Playing a Nine-Man schedule during the entire regular-season — Carlton’s original schedule — the Raptors will move up to Class A and 11-Man football come playoff time in October. Not to be outmatched, the Raptors recently scrimmaged Class AAA foes Proctor and Two Harbors without panic, according to Zywicki.
“It didn’t seem to be a problem at all,” said Zywicki.
Not surprising for a rookie team that plays nothing like it. Rather, they have talent, chemistry, and most of all, Raptor pride.
“It was a lot of work and a lot of time,” said Zywicki of consolidating, “but it’s well-worth it. The kids deserve it. That’s why we’re here — to give them the opportunity to play, compete and experience high school football how it should be experienced.”
That makes for this Friday’s lights to be even brighter.
“It’s an opportunity for both communities to celebrate the merger of these two football programs and to help support both when each needed help,” said Coach Crane.
“Starting something new is always fun,” added Wimmer. “Being the first to combine for football, it could lead to even more.”
“On the field, we’re the Raptors,” chimed Kaden Crane, proudly. “It’s got nothing to do with Bulldogs or Wrens anymore. We’re the Raptors, and our communities are coming together.”