The St. Croix Central football team was met with more of a battle than it expected when the Panthers traveled to Spring Valley last Friday.
The Panthers got all the battle they could handle from the upset-minded Cardinals on Friday, holding on for a 22-20 win. The win raises the Panthers' Dunn-St. Croix Conference record to 4-1 and their overall mark to 5-2.
Elk Mound leads the conference with a 5-0 record heading into Thursday's regular season finale. The Panthers host Glenwood City on Thursday while Elk Mound plays at Boyceville.
The Panthers will have their hands full with the Hilltoppers. Glenwood City is the leading rushing team in the conference. This will be the final regular season home game for the Panther seniors. Central coach Tony DiSalvo said the Panthers need a win on Friday to give the team a better chance of hosting a game in the opening round of the WIAA state playoffs the following week.
Central's performance at Spring Valley wasn't what the coaches were anticipating as the team hones its skills for the playoffs. The Panthers fumbled the ball away three times and Spring Valley converted all three turnovers into touchdowns.
The passing game was Central's saving grace on Friday. While most games in western Wisconsin were affected by the horrific wind on Friday, the location in the valley for Spring Valley's field made the wind much less of a factor. With Central's strong reliance on the passing game, factoring out the wind was huge.
Spring Valley had no way of stopping Central's passing attack, especially the combination of quarterback Carl Moll to receiver Cody Nyhagen. Moll completed 19 passes in the game for 267 yards. Ten of those throws were caught by Nyhagen, covering 173 yards.
The Panthers needed the passing attack desperately Friday, because the running game was nearly non-existent. The Panthers gained 39 yards on 13 carries and fumbled three times.
"We've got to be able to run too," said Central coach Tony DiSalvo. "In the playoffs you can't be so one dimensional."
Because of three fumbles, giving up the 20 points shouldn't be an indictment of the Panther defense. DiSalvo said the Panthers defended the pass well, limiting Spring Valley's Zach Newton to two completions in 13 attempts. The Panther pass rush also performed well, sacking Newton six times. Derek Binkowski and Tyler Lathe led the team with two sacks each and Lathe forced two fumbles.
Nyhagen had another huge game from his safety position, leading the Panthers with 23 tackles. Aaron Delander, Brandon Booth and Kyle Aaby were all in double digits for tackles.
DiSalvo said the area where the defense will need to be stronger is against the run, especially between the tackles, and that will get tested this Thursday against Glenwood City.