Playing for bragging rightsPublished 8:58am Friday, November 19, 2010
In 2006 Cromwell High School football coach Jeff Gronner led his Cardinals to the state high school football tournament.
He was keeping a careful eye on the scoreboard, watching the Underwood-Stephen-Argyle game.
If both Cromwell and Underwood won and advanced to the finals, what seemed the unthinkable might happen. Gronner would coach his team against the Rockets — the team he proudly played for as a high school student.
“I thought it would be cool if it happened,” Gronner. “We were on the other side of the bracket playing for the right to play for the state title.”
Both Underwood and Cromwell lost, and the storybook game never happened.
Fast forward to 2010. In an unlikely twist of fate, Cromwell and Underwood will face each other at 8 a.m. tomorrow for the right to play for the state title. The game pits Gronner against his hometown team and a school deeply rooted with family ties and close friendships.
“I never thought this could happen this year,” Gronner said.
“Underwood wasn’t favored to win its conference and we certainly weren’t. As a matter of fact, at one point we were 2-4,” Gronner said. “I just never thought it could happen.”
Tomorrow’s game is stirring up lots of memories and emotion.
Gronner remembers playing football as a sixth grader on a team that got elevated to junior high play because there were just two junior high players signed up to play. In seventh grade the boys went undefeated, Gronner recalled.
That team stuck together for six years.
“As freshmen we had one win,” Gronner said. “Each year we improved. Each year we got better.”
And in his junior year Gronner recalls playing on Underwood’s first-ever state tournament team — a team coached by Phil Link and a team on which he was both an offensive and defensive end as well as a team captain.
“Those days were a lot of fun,” Gronner said.
“I don’t remember all the victories, but vividly remember our loss in the quarterfinals to Halbrook,” Gronner said.
“It was a “Frozen tundra” kind of field. We had to wear tennis shoes instead of cleats because the ground was so frozen that the cleats wouldn’t take,” he recalled. “That field was rock solid.”
And in an unlikely turn of events, it was Halbrook that Gronner faced in his first game as a football coach at Cromwell 13 years ago.
Gronner, who was born in Fergus Falls and schooled his entire life in Underwood, has deep family roots in the area. His parents Rick and Linda recently retired after long careers as teacher; Rick as an auto mechanics instructor at Fergus Falls High School and Linda as an elementary school teacher in Underwood.
His brother Chad is a shop teacher at Underwood while Chad’s wife Molly teaches elementary school in Underwood. Gronner’s sister Jennifer Roisum teaches Social Studies at Battle Lake.
“I still have a lot of real good friends in Underwood and get back there quite a bit,” Gronner said.
One of those good friends is Underwood head football coach Chuck Ross. Another is defensive coordinator Brian Hovland, who is a neighbor of Gronner’s parents and his annual hunting buddy.
“I just hope (Cromwell) wins that football game so I don’t have to come back to Underwood and be harassed,” Gronner said.
Jeff Hage is the managing editor of The Daily Journal. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.