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Catch him if you can: Cromwell-Wright's Johnson making the most of expanded role

Cromwell-Wright's Nic Johnson rushes the ball during practice Tuesday at Public Schools Stadium. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Cromwell-Wright's Nic Johnson rushes the ball during practice Tuesday at Public Schools Stadium. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

Time was, it didn't take much to tackle Cromwell-Wright's Nic Johnson.

He was a defensive starter as a sophomore, but carrying the football wasn't in his — or the Cardinals' — best interest.

For one, Johnson still was learning the playbook.

For two: "He wasn't very tough at that time," Cromwell-Wright coach Jeff Gronner said during a frigid practice Tuesday at Public Schools Stadium.

In fact, Gronner added, "if someone got their hands on him, he went down."

Johnson didn't dispute that assessment.

"That's really accurate," the senior said.

At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, Johnson still isn't going to overpower many defenders. He'll simply outrun them.

With a deep backfield that featured Eli Warpula and Dillon Hoff, Johnson split time at wide receiver with Sawyer Strelnieks last year. He also saw spot duty at running back and when his number was called, Johnson capitalized. He ended the season with 430 yards — on 25 carries (17.2 average).

Warpula and Hoff were among the 12 seniors that paved the Cardinals' path to U.S. Bank Stadium last November, when their Nine-Man state semifinal against Cleveland/Immanuel Lutheran doubled as the first prep football game played at the Vikings' glitzy new stadium.

For Johnson, then, it was hello, running back.

That was cemented in Cromwell-Wright's season opener this fall. Johnson ran wild that night, racking up 270 rushing yards and four touchdowns on just 15 carries in a 37-8 win over fellow state-tournament entrant North Woods.

Still slight, Johnson added about 15 pounds over the offseason to get to 170. He didn't, however, lose his breakaway speed. He's been clocked at 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

"He's definitely the fastest guy I've ever coached," Gronner said. "And it's not even close."

Minnesota State-Moorhead took notice, recruiting Johnson to play in the NSIC, likely as a defensive back.

He will enter the undefeated Cardinals' state quarterfinal vs. Stephen-Argyle Central on Friday at Bemidji State with 1,349 yards and 21 TDs. The two tradition-rich clubs kick off at 5:30 p.m.

Johnson was still involved on offense a year ago, but Cromwell-Wright had a wealth of weapons, including all-world quarterback Zion Smith. There were only so many touches to go around. So he bided his time, content to make the most of every opportunity that came his way.

"It was kind of tough because it's a mental thing," Johnson, one of the region's best track and field sprinters, said of his limited carries in 2016. "But I knew that if my team does what we do, we'd be fine. I don't need to get the ball all the time."

Cromwell-Wright did what it did. And the Cardinals are doing it again. They're 11-0 and have yet to be tested. Gronner believed they were capable of returning to state, but he didn't foresee this kind of dominance.

"Surprised we're here? No," the coach said. "But I am surprised at how easily we got here."

North Woods breaks through

Ever since Cook and Orr merged to form aptly named North Woods, the football program has knocked on the door of the state tournament.

It started that first year, 2011, when the nascent Grizzlies went 10-1 and dropped a heart-breaker in the section final, 27-26 to Bigfork. North Woods, which is 54-16 in its seven seasons of existence, fell a game short of state two more times — in 2014, when star Travis Hooper was injured early, and last fall.

"We've been close before," Grizzlies coach John Jirik said. "We just needed to win one."

That occurred last Friday at Esko, where North Woods finally busted the door down, overpowering Cook County 28-6.

The Grizzlies meet Nevis in a Nine-Man quarterfinal at about 8 p.m. Friday at Bemidji State.

North Woods — similar to Cromwell-Wright or Ely — has managed to avoid the persistent ups and downs most small schools encounter. You can always count on the Grizzlies to be competitive. Part of that, Jirik says, is an abundance of multi-sport athletes. Specialization is about as common as flip-flops in October in Cook.

Indeed, some of North Woods' best players also excel on the basketball court, where they ripped off a dramatic postseason run last winter. With standouts like Cade Goggleye, Tate Olson and Brendan Parson, the Grizzlies streaked all the way to the Class A state championship game.

Different sport, but the success is largely the same. Olson has passed for 1,699 yards and rushed for another 376. Parson is nearing 1,400 yards on the ground, and Goggleye — he of buzzer-beating, half-court-shot fame — has caught 14 passes for 318 yards. Chase Kleppe, another hoopster, has registered 75 tackles.

Some of the lessons they learned on the hardwood have translated to the gridiron.

"Last year's basketball team opened the door for this year's football team," Jirik said.

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