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Wrens roll by rival Bulldogs

With a mere 13 players on his high school football roster this fall, Wrenshall coach Jeremy Zywicki said their season has been much like piecing together a puzzle to make things best fit.

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With a mere 13 players on his high school football roster this fall, Wrenshall coach Jeremy Zywicki said their season has been much like piecing together a puzzle to make things best fit.

And in the Wrens' most meaningful matchup yet, Tyler Kelley was the perfect piece.

Kelley counted three touchdowns, including one for 74 yards in the opening quarter, as the junior raced up and down Jim Erickson Field last Friday in leading visiting Wrenshall to a 34-8 win over neighboring Carlton.

Separated by just four miles on County Highway 1, Wrenshall and Carlton are the ultimate small-school rivals. With Carlton founded in 1910 and Wrenshall in 1918, pride runs deep for the Bulldogs and Wrens. Throw in the fact that both small schools have sought consolation on and off for the past 40 years, and last Friday's 9-Man football game with nothing short of must-see.

The many fans dressed in Bulldog blue and white and the Wrens' orange and black saw a lot of Kelley. Scoring in the first, second and third quarters, Kelley kept Wrenshall (1-3) on top all evening, as the Wrens led 22-0 by halftime and as much as 28 throughout the third quarter en route to their first victory in a match of winless teams.

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The longest play came from Kelley as well, when he spurted free and sped his way down the sideline for the game's first score. At 5-foot-4, 140 pounds, Kelley isn't your biggest backfield runner, yet he is slippery to stop and has the jets to outrun opposing defenses.

Also a middle linebacker - perhaps the smallest one many have ever heard of - Kelly doesn't see his small size as a liability.

"It feel it gives me an advantage, because I'm hard to see behind our big linemen," said Kelley, crediting his teammates. "I definitely need them blocking for me - they're making the holes."

Zywicki, now in his ninth season with the Wrens, said when Kelley sees an opening though, he goes.

"If there is a crease, he's going to find it and hit it," he said of the Wrens' leading rusher and touchdown producer this fall. "He's not real big, but really quick. And once he gets to the open field, he's hard to catch."

"It's off to the races," added first-year Carlton coach Andrew Weber about Kelley. "He's a tough kid."

That may be an understatement, as last winter Kelley broke his left wrist during the basketball season, but still played in games by dribbling and shooting with his right and in a black cast on his left. He later had surgery and now plays an even more high-contact sport with a permanent screw drilled into his bone.

"I really don't think about it much," said Kelley of the hardware in his lower arm. "I can't really feel anything."

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Kelley’s younger brother, sophomore Jared, also ran for a 15-yard touchdown Friday. Teammate Eli Krisak also hauled in a fourth-quarter TD pass from quarterback Randy Wimmer from 23 yards. Longtime starter Phil Vine was a force on both sides of the line.

In terms of a sibling rivalry between the Kelleys, Tyler said it’s there. Asked if his brother, who has another two years of high school to go still, would catch some of his rushing marks, Kelley answered quickly.

"Maybe," he said with a laugh. "There is definitely some competition there."

Just competing, however, is a huge deal for the Wrens.

Last season - one year removed from a section final appearance in 2014 - they were forced to forfeit their varsity schedule due to a shortage in numbers. The same happened for them in 2009 and 2010, lacking players in a school of just 105 students.

And this fall, with only a baker's dozen worth of boys, Zywicki's program is toeing the line again, suffering several injuries early and barely having enough bodies for a starting lineup. Zywicki though, remained unphased this week, talking confidently of his small group of guys who spend a lot of their time going up against tackling dummies and well, running, at their daily practices.

"They know their responsibilities," said Zywicki of many of his kids playing two ways and enduring constant conditioning to stay in shape. "If they want to play football, they'll have to be tough and fight. And any time you can drive a few miles down the road and dominate your rival on their field feels good. Hopefully we can get our season rolling."

Kelley too, is optimistic about their chances of finishing out the year intact. He noted he spent much of the summer with his friends trying to get the program's numbers back up.

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"Everyone loves having football back," Kelley said. "We play with a lot of heart. We'll be able to make it through just fine."

"Knock on wood," Zywicki added.

Carlton too, can relate to its rivals, as the Bulldogs cancelled their 2011 season and half of 2012, due to a number shortage. That’s not the case this fall, as Weber noted more than 30 kids are out for their program, including a healthy group of underclassmen.

What has eluded Carlton (0-4) this season though, has been a victory. Led by QB Jackson Mickle's 57-yard scoring run and then two-point conversion pass to teammate Nate Nilsen in the third quarter, the Bulldogs were simply beaten by a team that just played better, Weber said.

"They did everything right. They sustained drives, controlled the clock and scored," Weber said of Wrenshall. "They played a great game and we just didn't match it."

Weber added that starting running back Isaiah Wallace went out with an ankle injury on the fourth play of last week's contest. That didn't help the Bulldogs, but isn't an excuse for them to let up now.

"It doesn't get any easier - all the teams we play have winning records - but we have a few games to see what we can do," Weber said. "Anything can happen."

The same is not likely for consolidation between the pair of schools, at least in the near future. That was on the table last year, but ended in a stalemate between the two boards. Although the schools have co-opted in other sports previously, including baseball, softball and track and field, Wrenshall and Carlton superintendents, activities directors and coaching staffs have suggested doing the same for football in recent years, but reached no agreement. Since 2007, Wrenshall is 24-37 and Carlton is 12-58 with nearly five combined cancelled varsity seasons.

With the talk fizzling over the past couple years, that just means the two Polar League schools will continue facing one another year after year, hoping to field a team for the year's most spirited meeting just down the road.

"Just playing Carlton gets us all fired up," Kelley said. "It's just something."

"It's always a great environment when we come together with Carlton - the kids are always up to the challenge," added Zywicki. "I didn't have to say anything."

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