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Small school football preview: Cromwell and ML-WR stand tall among small

Moose Lake-Willow River and Cromwell are dissimilar enough on the football field that they don't even line up the same number of players, but it's a commitment to the program off the field that has made both high schools consistent champions.

Small-school preview
Cromwell comes into the 2011 season as defending state champs. (2010 file / News Tribune)

Moose Lake-Willow River and Cromwell are dissimilar enough on the football field that they don't even line up the same number of players, but it's a commitment to the program off the field that has made both high schools consistent champions.

The Rebels and Cardinals again won their respective sections in 2010 -- with Cromwell unexpectedly going all the way to capture its fourth Nine-Man state title.

Coaches Dave Louzek and Jeff Gronner say the success stems from players' dedication to offseason workouts and a desire to please those who came before them.

"I think it starts with our kids. Every year they take it upon themselves in the offseason to work hard and prepare themselves," Gronner said. "Each group of upperclassmen doesn't want to let down the others who graduated and made it so successful, so they put the time in in the offseason to keep us going."

Louzek agrees peer pressure has a lot to do with it.

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"The kids have to buy into the program and realize what the expectations are and what's been accomplished in the past. That drives them to work hard in the offseason," he said. "About 30 or 40 football alumni come back to the games and talk to the players on the field afterward. The players see that these (graduates) are coming back and watching them play, so they know they are making sure they are keeping the tradition going."

Each side face challenges as the season gets under way. Moose Lake-Willow River, though a decided favorite to win another Great Polar title and a sixth straight 7AA crown, must face much-larger schools in Virginia and Duluth Denfeld.

"We want to go into games with that extra nervousness that you get from playing a bigger school in order to prepare us for playoffs," said Louzek, whose team owns a 38-game regular-season win streak. "Everything we do for our program is not geared toward any regular-season success, but measured by how far we get in the playoffs every year."

The Rebels graduated nine members of their offense and eight on defense. Returning are senior wingback Chris Gassert, who rushed for more than 1,400 yards; junior wingback Jake Disterhaupt, who added close to 600 on the ground; senior cornerback Josh Cisar, who had a conference-high five interceptions; senior linebacker Spencer Clough, who registered 75 tackles; and senior defensive end Taylor Mattison.

Cromwell, which finished sixth in the Great Northern Conference before going on an improbable playoff run that culminated in a record-setting Prep Bowl victory, has its own issues in attempting to return to the state tournament for a 16th time.

All-Area Player of the Year and Prep Bowl star quarterback Jordan Suhonen graduated along with virtually everyone else. Suhonen rushed for a record 374 yards and scored five touchdowns in the 49-42 championship win over Lanesboro. Senior Jake Ramberg is the lone returning starter, while fellow linemen Austin Johnson and Mark Thompson and quarterback Jarad Hutar filled in at times.

Gronner knows that inexperience won't remove the target from his team's back.

"I'm sure we're a team that other teams are gunning for, and that's how we like it," he said. "And I'm sure other teams don't care that we don't have anyone back, they still want a piece of us. So we'll have to be ready for everyone's best shot."

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Section 7AA

season already under way

Two Harbors and Duluth Marshall got a jump on the season by playing a "zero-week" game last week. The Agates won 12-6 as two underclassmen scored TDs. That could be the modus operandi for the depth-challenged Agates, who started five sophomores and two freshmen due to injuries to seniors. The top upperclassmen are Billy Sell (RB-DE), Jesse Omtvedt (RB-DB), running back Brandon Lambe and linemen Tyler McGregor, Noah Alm and Austyn Wasko.

"We'll have some tough times, but we'll also have games where we make good progress. That's the kind of year it's going to be," said coach Tom Nelson, whose team drops a class this year. "I think we'll be in double-A for a while now. I think it's a good fit enrollment-wise."

Marshall coach Dave Homstad said his team played well enough defensively to win the opener but committed too many mistakes on the other side of the ball. That's something he doesn't want becoming a trend.

"Now that we have one game under our belt, we feel we should have more composure on offense and not make so many turnovers," Homstad said.

With an inexperienced backfield, the key to the Hilltoppers' season is the return of senior offensive linemen Peter Vatalaro (245 pounds), Kevin Thorson (235) and Sam Nord (220) and juniors Than Serre (220) and Matt Cutshall.

Section 7A

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Barnum building a foundation

Barnum coach Kevin Haley looks at the Moose Lake-Willow River and Cromwell programs with respect and is hopeful his team reaches that level someday in Class A.

The Bombers won the section last year for the second time in five seasons, adding another "brick" to the foundation Haley says he's been building.

"That's one thing we've tried to work on the last 10 years -- not having that good season every once in a while," Haley said. "We play competitive football every year, and this team -- whether good or bad -- will be part of that foundation. I'm hoping we can continue the success we've had the last few years."

Barnum returns 15 seniors, including seven starters, from that 10-2 team and has 44 players out for the sport, a good-sized number for a school with fewer than 200 grade 9-12 students. Returnees include seniors Robert Minkkinen (QB-DB), Wyatt Finifrock (RB-LB), Lewis Eggen (OL-DL), Travis Anderson (OL-DL) and Samuel Kovanen (OL-DL) and juniors Samuel Anderson (TE-LB), John Zmyslony (OL-DL) and Daniel Warpula (RB-DB).

Replacing 1,000-yard rushers Josh Hogan and Hector Chavez will be a challenge, as will be the lack of any real size up front.

Adding to the difficulty of a repeat is the inclusion of Braham and Deer River from 7AA. Braham lost to Moose Lake-Willow River in the 2010 section final, while Deer River consistently has challenged for section titles. Section runners-up East Central has 11 seniors back from a team that posted a 9-2 record, and Cook County returns its backfield of Kale Boomer, Dylan Quiafe and Colin Everson.

"Section 7 is really up for grabs," Haley said. "I don't think, by any means, we are the favorite to come out of that. There's four, five teams that have just as good of a chance as any of us."

Nine-Man

Mcgregor, Floodwood next in line?

McGregor handled Cromwell by three touchdowns when they met in the regular season last year and again had the upper hand when the teams scrimmaged during this preseason.

But it's the 21-0 pasting that the Cardinals inflicted in the Section 5 final that's remembered most around McGregor.

The Mercuries (9-1 in 2010) return seven seniors, including 1,000-yard rusher Alex Carlstrom, in an effort to return to the state tournament for the first time since 2007 and second time overall.

-- Cromwell defeated Floodwood twice last year, but the Polar Bears have several key performers from a six-win team returning. Seniors Levi Bailey, Cody Farrell and Jordan Myles join forces with a talented junior class that includes Trevor Bernsdorf, Jarred Heggedahl, Ross Schminski and Butch Sandstrom as the school seeks its first state tournament appearance.

-- A senior-less Wrenshall squad resumes varsity action after two years of inactivity due to low numbers; and South Ridge students will occupy a new school in Culver, though the football team will play at the old AlBrook field in Saginaw.

-- Cromwell's first state tournament victim was Section 7 champion Mountain Iron-Buhl, which was blitzed 36-6 in the quarterfinals.

But the Rangers only lost two seniors off a 10-2 team that swept all six conference opponents and should be primed at making another run at the Metrodome. Junior Deven Rowe shifts to QB, replacing all-everything back Ryan Buria who took his 1,486 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns to Division II St. Cloud State. The entire offensive line returns, including seniors Ty Richards and Dylan Frederick, along with athletic skill-position players such as senior RB Tyler Goodrie and senior TE Jake Stevens to give MIB a good chance at a ninth state berth.

"That's always a goal of ours," coach Wally Kostich said. "The biggest difference last year when we faced Cromwell was our offensive line was so young. Those kids are all a year older now so we should be more mature up front."

Other contenders in a new-look Section 7 include Bigfork and North Woods -- the new combined program of Cook and Orr students, which drew about 50 players to the first day of practice. Chisholm and Ely, though still playing a Class A regular-season schedule, drop to Nine-Man for the playoffs.

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
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