St. Croix Central football hosts Northwestern Friday in WIAA playoffs

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By scoring the first 10 points on Friday, Mauston didn’t scare the St. Croix Central football team.

But it did make the Panthers mad. And you don’t want to mess with a bunch of angry Panthers. Central responded by scoring 41 straight points, on the way to a 48-26 win in the opening round of WIAA Division 4 playoff action on Friday.

The Panthers will be in action at home again this Friday, hosting Northwestern at 7 p.m. Northwestern is coming off a 29-17 win at Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau on Friday. G-E-T was the third seed and Northwestern was seeded sixth, but Northwestern was clearly better than previously unbeaten G-E-T on Friday.

Central and Northwestern have met several times through the years in the playoffs. Northwestern has always been a gritty opponent and Central coach Tony DiSalvo said he expects more of the same this season. DiSalvo said Northwestern runs a mix of offenses, ranging from an inverted wishbone to a split-back veer to its standard double wing formation.

“They give you everything they got,” DiSalvo said.

The Panthers didn’t look playoff ready at the start of last Friday’s game, fumbling on the first play after receiving the opening kickoff. Mauston quickly cashed the turnover into a touchdown. The Panthers couldn’t get a first down on their next possession. Mauston hit a long pass down the sideline to set up a field goal. The Panthers were suddenly facing a 10-0 deficit.

Then the Panthers began to look like the team that made the charge to the state championship.

“It was like hitting a hornets’ nest. We woke up and played well,” DiSalvo said. “It was a great wakeup call. (Playoff opponents) are going to come and hit you and you have to be ready to play.”

And when the Panther offense is working well, it is dictated by the power game. Fullback Ryan Larson tore apart the Mauston defense, finishing with 223 yards on 26 carries. Central’s first scoring drive consisted mainly of Larson carries. The next drive started with an 18-yard run by Larson. The Mauston defense began slanting toward the middle, and quarterback Austin Kopacz struck at the right time, cutting around the left end of the line for a 43-yard touchdown.

Kopacz was starting in the place of senior Collin Nelson, who was sidelined with a shoulder injury. DiSalvo said he expects Nelson to be back for this week’s game. DiSalvo said Kopacz and his younger brother, Trevor, are the leading candidates to take over as quarterback next season.

The Panthers took charge of the game in the second quarter, adding three more touchdowns. A fumble recovery by Chris Matteson set up the first of those, a 32-yard blast by Larson. Larson added his third touchdown minutes later. Keagen Berg added the final touchdown of the half of a 20-yard run.

A touchdown by Alec Fischer opened the second half, extending the lead to 41-10. The Panther reserves played much of the remainder of the game.