Seventeen years of...
by John Grones | November 18, 2003
It started in 1987. A spirited head coach by the name of Keith Bergstedt took over the Cromwell Cardinal football team and began a tradition... of winning. With a little help from several large athletic families – Olesiaks, Andersons, Ahos, Dahls, Smiths and several other great football players, the teams have put up some awesome numbers over the past seventeen years.
The accomplishments are quite amazing. Bergstedt, who is better known as Bergie by his players, compiled a record of 156-34 in seventeen seasons. He won 10 Conference titles and 11 Section titles. Of his 11 state tournament appearances, he won three state championships and placed second three more times.
Bergie has coached 25 All-State players, 15 Conference MVPs and he had 16 1,000 yard rushers. He was selected 9-man coach of the year three times and the Minnesota Coach of the Year in 1998.
The team’s home record is also phenominal. They Cardinals lost just one regular season home game in the 90s and only a few overall. Last year was one of the rare occasions that a Bergie coached team lost a regular season game on their home turf. It was such a monumentous occasion, the opposing team celebrated on the field for over a half hour.
Bergie’s first year was nothing to write home about. The team went 5-4, but they were competitive. Bergie felt that a three game span where they played the best teams in the conference was the turning point. “I always felt like that first year we got baptized into some good football. In some order we played Littlefork, Bigfork and AlBrook. Probably the defining game was this Littlefork game. We started by stuffing them... we scored... I lost my starting tight end, Kent Tilli our captain... we stuffed them again, but it was all Littlefork after that. They put all nine guys on the line of scrimmage and just flew at us. We had never seen anything like this. It was like a Viking rampage. They are the Vikings oddly enough.”
“We had some tough kids on that team, but they realized what it was like to play a football game. The game ended up something like 54-6 after leading 6-0.”
Tim Hakamaki was one of the hard-nosed kids on those early teams and he agreed. “They absolutely rocked us,” he said. “Those guys taught us how to hit hard on every play. If you weren’t ready you were going to get smacked.”
That inaugural season was very important for Bergie. He realized that there was good football, mediocre football and crappy football. “We could see that, and we could see where we needed to be, so the Littleforks of the world taught us all about football.”
The Messman years (1987-1991)
Mark Messman was Bergie’s first assistant, and they worked together until 1991. Mark is now the activities director at Holdingford and is the head football coach of a very strong team. They went 9-1 this year and have been in the Section Final six of the last eight years. Mark recalled those early years and reflected on the memorable moments. “There were a few,” he said, “If I had to pick one it would be the fact that we went from not having anything to being a state contender in such a short time. To see a program come out of nowhere was something else. There are some incredible kids up there.”
Mark still recalls when Bergie was disgruntled. His lower lip came out, along with the chin. He also recalled how animated Bergie could get. “Everything he did was animated,” said Mark. “The pregame, the post game, during the game, during the drills...he even put the pads on a couple of times back then...until Tim Hakamaki and Joe Mattson laid him out.”
“That’s correct,” said Bergie. “They laid me out and a few years later, in 1993, my wrist got caught between Roger Collman and Jim Mattson’s helmets and I haven’t scrimmaged since. I enjoyed doing it. We’ve always been physical, so they enjoyed pounding on me a little bit. These kids never said no to what we asked of them. The Pittsburgs or eight million of whatever...I just thought it would be fun to pound on me a bit. They enjoyed it. I’d love to still be able to do it...but it took six months before my wrist felt normal.”
That same year, Roger and Jim gave Tim Hakamaki a hit to remember. Tim had been out of school for three years, but came back to help out the team. He suited up to give the first team a good look. “Those two guys took my back tooth out. I have the gold crown to prove it,” he said. “It cost me 500 dollars.”
The Koupal years (1992-1993)
Bergie’s assistant coach in 1992 and 1993 was John Koupal. After coaching in Cromwell, John moved on to be the head coach in Wells, Minn. followed by six years as an assistant at Monticello. He has since left coaching to start his own business and spend more time with his family.
John is proud to have been a part of the Cromwell tradition. Having coached in other communities, he recognizes that teams and fans elsewhere are missing out on something special. “Bergstedt was a big part of that,” said John. “The tradition started out with a couple of hard-nosed kids and then each class wanted to go farther than the next.”
John’s most vivid memory was the 1992 season when the team started out 1-2. “We had higher hopes for this team and we started out with two early losses,” said John. “We finally put things together, kept rolling and made it to the state championship game. I think that was Bergie’s defining moment.”
According to Bergie, that was the year he had a lot of veterans back and he switched some players around. Bergie recalled, “Petey Smith was an All-State quarterback...now he’s a halfback...Dave Dahl, never been quarterback...now as a senior he is the quarterback. There was some grumbling...”
Bergie went on to rally the team explaining to his kids that they were the best 1-2 team in the state. “... and I really meant it. We were all new to our positions and we were like a new team, but I say we stick to what we are doing. I believe we have the people where they need to be. The rest was history. We started rolling people.”
Cromwell went on to convincingly beat the #1 ranked team, St. Clair in the quarterfinals. “Everything went perfect,” said Bergie. It was a very fun team...really talented.”
Cromwell went on to the state championship game and lost to Stephen, 36-20. Pete Smith and Roger Collman were named to the All-State team.
The Holgate years (1994-1997)
Dan Holgate was Bergie’s assistant from 1994-97, a time-span that included two state championships and a runner-up. “Those were the years,” said Dan, recalling his first job out of college. “It was great, stepping out of college into a strong football program.”
Dan said that Bergie was quite the character, always talking about hunting and football. He still remembers the game that Bergie missed to go hunting. “It was fun for me, I got to call the plays,” said Dan. “I think he had a big moose hunt trip planned. I just remember it was Wrenshall and Wrenshall’s coach (Hyland) was not very happy that we came without the coach.” Crowmell went on to destroy Wrenshall 61-6 and later won the State Championship.
In any event, Bergie did not get his once-in-a-lifetime moose. “We passed up on some calves and a big ol’ cow and we wanted to shoot Bullwinkle. We wanted horns and we didn’t. We failed!”
“I had some dreams that night of ‘what if’,” Bergie went on about the night his team was playing Wrenshall. “What if everything went wrong...the quarterback got hurt...and we lost. I’d be run out of town. Head coach isn’t at his game. Hyland I guess was a bit troubled. It just bugged him.”
Bergie brushed it off and moved on, but he would later find out why assistant coach, Dan had so much fun calling the plays. “What I heard then, is that Dan did all kinds of stuff. He kicked an extra point...any kind of trick play was tried that night. He was always amazed at how conservative I was. They had fun anyway.”
Dan reflected on the Cromwell success and felt that the work ethic of the kids was the defining difference. He felt they had a never give up attitude. The coaching motto was to get better every day and the kids responded. He also shared that Cromwell had to be one of the few 9-man schools with an active weight room.
The Gronner years (1998-2003)
Bergie has now turned over the reins to Jeff Gronner, his assistant coach for the past six years. Like many of the coaches that preceded him, he enjoyed joining such a strong football school, but Jeff would have some mixed emotions. “I knew about the Cromwell tradition before I arrived because I played 9-man football in Underwood,” he said. “So I was excited, but a little bit scared. Scared, because I knew there would be pressure to be just as good as in the past...but more excited.”
Jeff’s first impression of Bergie: “I couldn’t get a word in edgewise and I had a hard time understanding him. I had to really listen. Now, I think I understand him too well.”
During his tenure, Jeff has enjoyed assisting five state tournament appearances that include a state championship and a runner-up. According to Jeff, there are two games that will always stand out in his mind. “The first was the quarterfinal game of the state tournament in 1998 versus Babbitt,” he said. “It was a wild game and the score was 42-40 after three quarters.”
Bergie agreed. “That ranks in the top five no problem for me,” he said. “They were just an offensive team. As a good buddy, Bill Kennedy, said, ‘They have five guys that I’d rather have than your first.’ It was just a classic Cromwell team in that they found a way to get it done. I’m glad it was Jeff’s defense in the end. We had put a bunch of scores in the house, but we couldn’t move the ball in the fourth. The defense came up big and made the stop.”
No one scored in the fourth quarter, but it would take three goal line stands to get the victory. With three seconds remaining, Babbitt attempted a field goal at point-blank range, and coach Bergstedt would have bet money that the field goal was good, but Mason Han-sen tipped the ball preventing the score. Cromwell went on the win the state championship with a win over Hillcrest Lutheran Academy of Fergus Falls 42-22.
The other game was during the 2000 season and it had been much anticipated. Climax-Fisher had beaten Cromwell the previous year in the quarterfinals of the State Tournament and had a very strong team coming back.
“We had our eye on Climax-Fisher the whole season and we fully expected to meet them again in the state quarterfinals,” said Jeff. They did meet and Jeff felt the opposition probably had a more talented team, but Cromwell came out and played the perfect game and thoroughly beat Climax-Fisher 42-28.
“Well put,” said Bergie. “We felt the year before when we lost to them...we weren’t a great team, but we gave them every chance to beat us and they did. Then we ran through our schedule the next year and we had a high rank all year. Really, our whole season came down to that one game. We knew this was the game of games, and the kids responded and it was a heck of a game.”
“We played Cromwell ball that night and stuffed them when we needed to and scored when we had to. I know their coach still struggles with that loss. In hind sight, I think our kids felt that was the state championship right there and we didn’t play that well again, but ended up in the championship game.”
The team would eventually take second in the state after losing to Westbrook-Walnut Grove 42-20 in the state championship game.
The future is in good hands with Jeff, who plans on continuing all the same traditions. “I will still play smash-mouth football, but we might pass more. I know that if you can’t run the ball, you’re not going to go very far.”
Jeff concluded by stating that he can’t change that much, he learned almost everything he knows from Bergie.
As for Bergiei’s parting words, “It’s still all about blocking and tackling.”
This article first appeared in the November 18, 2003 issue of the Voyageur Press.