St. Croix Central football team stunned by playoff setback
The St. Croix Central offense had been virtually unstoppable in leading the Panthers to wins in their first 11 games of the 2011 season.
So it bordered on stunning to the Panthers when their offense was completely stymied by Somerset in Friday's WIAA Division 4 state quarterfinal game. Somerset shut out the Panthers 36-0. The Panthers end the season with an 11-1 record, but they fall short of their goal of a state championship, which would have been their first since the team's state title in 1988.
Somerset took away Central's two main offensive weapons. Central's prolific passing offense was shut off at both ends. Somerset's big defensive backs blanketed Panther receivers like no defense the Panthers have seen all season. And Somerset got excellent pressure through the middle of the Panther offensive line, forcing Central quarterback Carl Moll out of the pocket on nearly every pass attempt. Those combined pressures led to Somerset intercepting three Panther passes.
Central didn't have any success running between the tackles, which has been another of their strengths this season. Senior halfbacks Korey Jacobson and Justin Kattre have combined to rush for more than 1,500 yards this season, but Somerset held them to a combined 24 yards on Friday.
The interceptions were killers for the Panthers. The first came one play after Somerset scored its opening touchdown. The Spartans quickly turned the turnover into points and led 16-0 at the 6:39 mark of the first quarter. In the final moments of the first quarter the Panthers drove inside the Somerset 30, the second time they'd gotten there in the first quarter. That possession was snuffed out by the third interception of the quarter, where the receiver and defender battled for the ball in the end zone, but Somerset came away with the ball.
The Central defense had also put up good numbers all season, but they couldn't stop Somerset once the Spartans got momentum. Somerset used a drive of nearly eight minutes to score after the interception, building the lead to 22-0. Somerset crushed any hopes of a Central comeback by scoring on the final play of the first half, making the margin 28-0.
After Somerset built a 16-0 lead in the first quarter, the Panthers suffered an injury that set them on their heels more. Junior defensive back Jag Johnson suffered a broken ankle while trying to stop a running play in the opening moments of the second quarter.
The Panthers haven't been able to figure out Somerset for more than a decade. Central's last win over Somerset came during the 1996 season, when running back Aaron Moe led the Panthers to a 27-20 victory.
Panther coach Tony DiSalvo was deeply disheartened over Friday's loss. He reminded his players not to dwell on this one loss, but to relish the 11 victories that put them in this position.
"We had a great season," DiSalvo said, listing off highlights that included "undefeated conference champions, number one seed (in the playoffs), great leadership, kids who played hard and practiced hard."
The Panthers rolled up more than 4,000 yards of offense this season, one of the largest totals in team history. The offense was also one of the most diverse ever. Six players caught 13 or more passes, led by the 42 receptions from junior Cody Nyhagen. Jacobson and Kattre produced numerous big plays. Jacobson averaged 9.4 yards every time he carried the ball this season, finishing with 961 yards.
DiSalvo said this year's senior class will go down as one of the most successful in team history. He said ever since the seniors were freshmen, he knew he had a hard-working class that gave everything they had.
"Their enthusiasm, their energy, they are just a fun group to be around," he said of his seniors.