Despite finishing in second place in the Middle Border Conference, the St. Croix Central football team was seeded ahead of two conference champions when the seeding was completed for the WIAA Division 4 state football bracket Saturday, Oct. 14.
As the second seed, the Panthers will play at home Friday, Oct. 20, hosting Mauston at 7 p.m. Mauston is the seventh seed in the bracket — finishing second in the South Central Conference with a 4-1 record and a 5-4 overall record. Mauston has a talented tailback in Tyler Jirousek, who has rushed for 1,266 yards this season.
Central was seeded in front of undefeated Coulee Conference champion Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau and Heart O'North Conference champion Bloomer. St. Croix Central coach Tony DiSalvo said he let the past success of the MBC do the talking in the seeding meeting.
"The Middle Border Conference has produced three straight state champions and has had a team in the state finals five of the last six years," DiSalvo said.
The most recent of those state champions is St. Croix Central. Friday's game will begin the pursuit of a second consecutive Division 4 state title for the Panthers. DiSalvo said the experience of reaching state last year taught the Panthers some things about how to deal with the playoffs.
"You've got to watch film, work hard in practice...we've got to prepare," DiSalvo said. He said playing in the MBC, where there is a challenging opponent on the schedule every game, is the best preparation the team could have.
The Panthers got an excellent test on Friday when they concluded the regular season at Somerset. The Panthers won the game 21-6, but the lead stood at 7-6 midway through the third quarter.
Central got the only score of the first half when junior fullback Ryan Larson plowed in from 1-yard out, behind a strong surge from the right side of the Panther offensive line, early in the second quarter.
Central and Somerset use quite similar offensive systems, so there was little surprise in this game. It just became a matter of who could execute better. Both teams were relying on their ability to drive the ball, which resulted in each team possessing the ball just once in the first quarter.
Somerset opened the second half with a touchdown drive, putting the pressure on the Panthers.
"When you respond back with a good answer, that's the mark of a good football team," DiSalvo said.
And the Panthers' answer was a sharp 69-yard scoring drive. Quarterback Collin Nelson had runs of 14 and 15 yards. That set up a 17-yard burst up the middle by Larson, after the left side of the Panther line opened a huge hole.
Somerset fumbled a pitch on its next possession, with Central's Cole Gostovich recovering at the Somerset 31. A 25-yard run by Alec Fischer got the ball down to the Somerset 1-yard line, and Fischer scored on a dive on the next play.
Larson led a balanced Panther ground attack with 93 yards. Nelson and Fischer also were over 50 yards for the night.