Prep football playoff preview: Race to the Bank begins Tuesday

Not that Zion Smith and his Cromwell-Wright teammates needed any extra motivation entering the postseason, but the Cardinals have a chance to play the first high school football game at the Minnesota Vikings' gleaming new U.S. Bank Stadium.

High school football teams across Minnesota kick off the postseason Tuesday night. The objective is to get to U.S. Bank Stadium in November. File photo / Minneapolis Star Tribune

Not that Zion Smith and his Cromwell-Wright teammates needed any extra motivation entering the postseason, but the Cardinals have a chance to play the first high school football game at the Minnesota Vikings’ gleaming new U.S. Bank Stadium.

It’s still a ways off, of course. Cromwell-Wright would need to win Section 5 Nine-Man, then get past the Section 7 rep in a state tournament quarterfinal Nov. 11 at Public Schools Stadium. Do that, and the Cardinals could become half the answer to a future trivia question.

They’d play the Section 4 or Section 2 winner at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 17.

“That’d be crazy,” Smith, a senior quarterback/linebacker, said last week.

Section playoffs begin this evening across Minnesota.


The destination? 401 Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis.

When the Metrodome was laid to rest in 2014, along with it went the building’s 31-year relationship with high school football. It hosted the Prep Bowl from 1982 through 2013, and added the state semifinals in 1990 and thereafter.

The big bubble was the promised land for football and soccer teams every fall. But U.S. Bank Stadium is bigger and better. At 1,750,000 square feet, it’s basically double the size of the Metrodome. And its $1.1 billion price tag dwarfs the $55 million required to build the ’Dome.

Its open concourses, LED lighting and wireless Internet make U.S. Bank Stadium feel more like a luxury hotel than a football venue.

It doesn’t have the history of the Metrodome - Cromwell-Wright, for example, won four state titles there - but it has just about everything else, including 2,000 high-definition TVs, 33 escalators and 12,560 square feet of video boards.

The Prep Bowl moved to the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium the past two years, with semifinals played at various sites.

A new era for football starts next month. The race for the Bank starts Tuesday night.

Grand Rapids tops in 7AAAAA


Led by senior Gavin Kuschel and junior Brody Holm, who have combined to rush for more than 1,000 yards, Grand Rapids is seeded atop Section 7AAAAA.

The Thunderhawks haven’t faced a section school this fall.

With matching 4-4 records, Chisago Lakes and St. Francis are second and third, respectively. No. 4 Andover could be a dark horse. The defending champion Huskies sport a meager two victories, but they played a wicked schedule. For example, they narrowly fell, 31-28, to a top-10 Class AAAAAA Blaine team on Oct. 14.

The winner of Tuesday’s Andover vs. Cambridge-Isanti contest plays at Grand Rapids on Saturday.

On the bottom of the bracket is Duluth East. The Greyhounds closed the regular season with a trip to St. Francis (20-13 loss), and that’s where they’ll be Tuesday night, too. East comes in with a lone victory, but senior quarterback Jack Rashid, one of the state’s most prolific passers, makes them dangerous.

Rashid has thrown for 2,004 yards on 134-for-243 passing (55.1 percent). He has 18 TDs against 17 interceptions. His favorite target is Joshua Daniels-Hanbury, who has 60 receptions for 752 yards and seven TDs.

Cloquet not worried about snub

Cloquet might be consumed with the number “2” heading into the postseason, but it’s not because of the digit fronting the Lumberjacks on the Section 7AAAA bracket.


Instead, it’s because that’s how many victories it will require to return to state.

Cloquet appeared to be snubbed when it was slotted behind Hermantown. Both are 5-3, though the Lumberjacks have a better section record (3-0 vs. 2-1) thanks to a 27-16 road win over the Hawks. But the method used for seeding - the Quality Results Formula belonging to the Minnesota Scores’ website - is 100 percent computer-reliant, with no human element. Two games involving Grand Rapids swung the bar enough in Hermantown’s favor: The Hawks overpowered the Thunderhawks 38-14, while Cloquet fell 14-7.

Realistically, it’s a moot point considering the section final is slated for a neutral location. Lumberjacks coach Tom Lenarz doesn’t have any qualms with the process.

“I’ve been doing this long enough and there are so many different ways to seed this stuff,” Lenarz said. “But I think QRF is as good as we’ve ever had. I have no complaints.”

Lenarz noted his team’s 24-21 loss last week at New Life Academy.

“The bottom line is if we’d have won that game Wednesday, it probably would have been enough to get us that top seed,” he said.

The coach is hoping senior Evan Erickson is back in the lineup for Saturday’s semifinal against either Duluth Denfeld or North Branch. The big tight end/defensive lineman has missed much of the season with a torn medial collateral ligament.

In a watered-down section, Denfeld (2-6) is the third seed.


Proctor not pretty, but productive

There is nothing flashy about Section 7AAA’s No. 1 seed.

No, Proctor just finds ways to win.

That’s what the Rails did in a come-from-behind triumph at Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin to commence the year, and that’s what they did in their past three victories: 9-7 at Cloquet, 20-16 at Hermantown and 12-0 vs. Two Harbors.

Proctor will go as far as its speedy, ball-hawking defense will take it. Sprinkle in opportunistic special teams and an offense that does just enough, and it’s a unique but effective recipe. The Rails are led by do-it-all senior John Aase, who has 335 receiving yards and five interceptions on defense.

Proctor is averaging just 206 yards of offense per game, fewer than its opponents.

This top-heavy section features second-seeded GNK and No. 3 Two Harbors, who could meet in Saturday’s semifinals in Coleraine.

The Agates are stocked in the backfield, with junior Spencer Ross (1,199 yards) and senior Ian Johnson (715).


Proctor, the defending champ in 7AAA, will host either Virginia or Esko on Saturday.

Changing of the guard in 7AA?

Right next to the leaves changing color, an annual autumn certainty had been Moose Lake-Willow River’s perch atop Section 7AA.

But that 10-year streak of state tournament berths appears vulnerable this time around. The Rebels closed the regular season by defeating Hermantown to snap a four-game skid, which relegated them to the No. 4 seed. Their only contest vs. a section foe ended in a 37-36 setback at third-seeded Crosby-Ironton.

Struggles aside, MLWR coach Dave Louzek was encouraged after his club reclaimed some of its luster while piling up almost 500 yards on the ground against the Hawks. The losses were uncharacteristic, but they forced the prideful Rebels to improve.

“The kids never got down on themselves,” Louzek said. “They never started pointing fingers. We got better every week and we’re ready for the playoffs.”

Behind dynamic senior Max Roberts, who has rushed for about 1,300 yards, Eveleth-Gilbert is seeded first. Four of the Golden Bears’ six victories were shutouts. No. 2 Royalton earned the other first-round bye.

MLWR hosts Rush City Tuesday night, with the winner traveling to Eveleth on Saturday.


Senior Bryceton Butkiewicz said the seed doesn’t matter to the Rebels.

“Nothing really changes,” said Butkiewicz, who ran for 157 yards and a score in a 22-6 win over Eveleth-Gilbert in the 2015 section final. “Playoff time, we come ready to play.”

Crosby-Ironton, which welcomes Mesabi East Tuesday night, features North Dakota State commit Noah Gindorff, who has rushed for 1,140 yards and 19 TDs.

Cromwell-Wright surging

“Dominant” might be an understatement when it comes to Cromwell-Wright’s regular season. Entering the Section 5 Nine-Man playoffs, the top-seeded Cardinals are outscoring foes 54-7 on average. They turned the ball over for the first time in Wednesday’s 67-8 thumping of Onamia, and their first-team defense has yet to surrender a touchdown.

Still, coach Jeff Gronner doesn’t have to delve too deeply into the past to underscore the importance of taking every opponent seriously. That’s because it was only last year that Cromwell-Wright’s run ended abruptly in the section semifinals via a 22-14 loss to Floodwood, a squad the Cardinals defeated 46-8 in the regular season.

“We knew it’d be a tough game going in, but we definitely overlooked our opponent,” Smith said. “It was one of the most devastating experiences I’ve had on the football field.”

Smith headlines a veteran roster that rolls out six seniors who have been starting since they were freshmen. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, the lefty signal-caller is physically imposing, with the kind of skill set that allows him to antagonize defenses both passing and rushing the ball. Smith has completed 42 of 71 attempts for 782 yards and 20 TDs. He hasn’t thrown an interception this fall and holds the school record for career passing TDs with 62.

“I’ve been blessed with a lot of good quarterbacks, but he’s just so smart and so heady,” Gronner said. “He’s very accurate with the ball.”

The Cardinals host Carlton Tuesday night.

  • If Cromwell-Wright survives the next week and a half, a state quarterfinal against the Section 7 champ looms. That had seemed Ely’s inevitable fate, but North Woods showed in a tight 20-12 loss to the Timberwolves last week that it is up to the task of challenging the No. 1 seed.

Junior running back Brendan Parson leads the youthful Grizzlies with 501 rushing yards.

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