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Local Nine-Man teams have numbers, looking for wins

FOOTBALL PREVIEWS: NINE-MAN *** To say that Jeff Gronner had a good time coaching last year wouldn't be enough. Last November, the Cromwell-Wright football coach brought the Cardinals to their small school's 17th state tournament, including the N...

FOOTBALL PREVIEWS: NINE-MAN

***

To say that Jeff Gronner had a good time coaching last year wouldn't be enough.

Last November, the Cromwell-Wright football coach brought the Cardinals to their small school's 17th state tournament, including the Nine-Man state semifinals against Cleveland/Immanuel Lutheran - and the first game ever played at U.S. Bank Stadium. In March, Gronner guided the town's girls basketball team to their second straight trip, garnering a school-best third place with his daughter, Bailey, as a player.

"Both of those things made it special," said Gronner.

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Yet, this time of year in the tiny community is always special. Football instills a sense of pride for the people of Cromwell and Wright, and the Cardinals have certainly showed why. Cromwell-Wright has been to 17 state tournaments, including eight Prep Bowls. They claimed titles in 1995, '96, '98 and 2010.

Basically, you can't chat Nine-Man football without mentioning the boys in red and white.

However, Gronner will be doing a little remodeling this fall, after graduating 12 seniors from last year's 12-1 squad, including six who started for four seasons.

Gone are the days of left-handed quarterback Zion Smith, last year's Duluth News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year (along with Proctor's John Aase), who threw for almost 1,300 yards and 32 touchdowns, ran for nearly 800 more yards and 13 scores and added 118 tackles as a linebacker.

"It was one of the biggest classes I've ever had," Gronner said. "I coached them for a long time. Losing them, it's basically a brand-new team."

Still, senior Nic Johnson is back, along with junior Cameron Cahoon, both who will be dangerous out of the backfield. Junior Cannon Korpela returns at linebacker. All three started last fall.

And while Cahoon carded close to 600 yards rushing a year ago, Johnson totaled near 500 - averaging more than 17 yards every time he touched the ball. He also caught 15 passes. Gronner noted Johnson will transition from receiver to running back, noting his playmaker will often be busy.

"He's probably one of the best athletes I've ever coached," Gronner said of the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Johnson in his fourth year on the varsity and third as a starter. "We have to find ways to get him the ball more."

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Johnson is fine with the position change, wanting to do whatever best benefits the team. He knows what last year was like getting to the billion-dollar home of the Minnesota Vikings. In fact, U.S. Bank Stadium hosts this year's Super Bowl.

"It's hard to describe, just an unbelievable feeling," said Johnson. "That's our No. 1 goal: to go there every year now."

In a community with as much tradition as theirs, don't count out the Cardinals.

"We can do it," said Johnson, whose team hosts North Woods Friday at 7 p.m. in a highly-anticipated Nine-Man season opener. "We work our butts off every day."

"I have a talented group coming up. We don't have as much experience or as many numbers," Gronner added of his 24 kids, several already plagued with the injury bug. "But we're going to be fine.

"Sometimes goals change. But our goal is to win the section and compete at the state level," he continued. "We're focusing on building up to October. Hopefully we'll make a deep run."

WRENSHALL

Wrenshall, also in Section 5, will look to do the same, as the Wrens welcome back Coach Jeremy Zywicki for in his 10th season on the sideline.

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Zywicki, who's struggled with numbers and cancelled seasons in the past, won't have that issue this fall. He noted earlier this week that 17 kids are back from his 3-6 team a year ago, including do-it-all running back Tyler Kelley. Last year the senior rushed for over 1,600 yards and 15 TDs, often creating highlight-reel runs with a mix of breakaway speed and hard-to-tackle power.

"And that was with a very young and inexperienced offensive line," Zywicki said. "If he hits the hole, usually you're not going to be able to catch him and I've never seen one tackler bring him down."

Saying the name "Kelley" will be announced a lot in Friday's 7 p.m. opener hosting Hill City-Northland is an understatement. Tyler's younger brother, Jared Kelley, will be his backfield mate, while cousin, senior Brennan Kelley, is also back for another season. Nick Mattson and Wyatt Holmes are also seniors on Zywicki's roster, while sophomore QB Randy Wimmer also returns.

Wrenshall got to the section final in 2014 against Cromwell-Wright. And with the Kelleys and Co. leading the way this fall, the Wrens certainly have the home-run power to be in the mix.

"We're looking to come out of the gates sprinting," said Zywicki.

CARLTON

Carlton actually makes the short trip down County Road 1 next Friday, Sept. 8, when the Wrens host their biggest rivals in a Nine-Man matchup sure to be crowded. Wrenshall won last year's game 34-8.

First though, the Bulldogs travel north to Littlefork-Big Falls Friday at 7 p.m. for their opener against the Vikings. Something will have to give between these two. While LF-BF was 0-8 last fall, Carlton was also winless, at 0-9.

Second-year coach Andy Weber hopes it will be his crew that will improve over last year's record, despite graduating 11 seniors. Weber noted his Bulldogs were busy this summer, spending plenty of time in the weight room and participating in several camps. He said he has 31 kids out, including the return of senior running back Jackson Mickle, a near 1,000-yard rusher last year.

"He's been around," said Weber of Mickle with a chuckle.

Senior Chase Parker, junior Jarrod Robertson and sophomore quarterback Kaden Crane also return. A mixture of sophomores and freshmen will contribute for Weber, who was optimistic earlier this week.

"Most of these guys are pretty new to the varsity," Weber said. "But this group has put in time and worked hard. We're looking to close the gap. Being competitive is a goal of ours. And if you make the game competitive, anything can happen."

SOUTH RIDGE

South Ridge certainly will be competitive again this autumn, as fourth-year coach Brent Johnson has 31 players out in Culver, more than half of them starters last year.

Heading the bunch will be senior signal-caller Nick Carlson at quarterback. A baseball and basketball player, along with a state track and field jumper, Carlson is athletic as they come.

"Everything will run right through him," Johnson said of his fourth-year starter.

Still, when Carlson isn't touching the football, junior running back Joe Janke will be. Another ultra-athletic teenager, Janke rushed for well-over 1,000 yards a season ago.

Johnson said that senior Hunter Skluzacek, juniors Elias Tuominen and Jayton Nelson and sophomore Matt Clark are also back, along with plenty others who have two or three years of experience.

South Ridge, which went 7-4 last year and all the way to the section final before losing to Cromwell-Wright, will travel to Isle Friday at 7 p.m. for their opener. Johnson said they are ready.

"They get tired of hitting each other," Johnson said. "They'll want to hit somebody different."

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