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Panthers return to state semifinals

The chewed up turf at the St. Croix Central football field led to mud and dirt getting everywhere. Here Panther assistant coach John Tackmann pulls dirt and grass from the facemask of quarterback Collin Nelson. Dave Newman / RiverTown Multimedia

The Freedom Irish stands between the St. Croix Central football team and the Panthers' return trip to the WIAA Division 4 state championship game.

The Panthers and Freedom will clash in one of two WIAA Division 4 state semifinal games at Jay Stadium in Merrill at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 10. The other Division 4 semifinal game features Lodi vs. Martin Luther on Friday at Waukesha North.

On Friday, Nov. 3 the Panthers shut out their second straight opponent from the Heart O'North Conference. This time, it was a 28-0 win over HON champion Bloomer. The score was also 28-0 the previous Friday when the Panthers overwhelmed Northwestern.

In both of these wins, the offense and defense fed off the success of the other in continuing to build a game-long success.

Both games started with the Panthers winning the coin flip and taking the ball. In both cases, the Panthers held the ball for most of the first quarter. And each time, the defense followed with a three-and-out, resulting in both HON opponents only having the ball for three offensive plays in the first quarter. It's tough to score points when you don't have the ball. The Panthers effectively played keepaway on Friday, running 60 offensive plays, compared to 34 for Bloomer.

This was the second straight game played in cold, snowy weather and it didn't bother the Panthers a bit. The ground attack averaged six yards per carry, between fullback Ryan Larson, quarterback Collin Nelson and halfbacks Alec Fischer and Keagen Berg.

Larson went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season on Friday with his 140-yard performance. He now stands at 1,094 yards after rushing for 1,449 yards in his sophomore season.

"We're snowers. We like playing in the snow and the rain," St. Croix Central coach Tony DiSalvo said in regard to the Panthers' success in the snow and cold the past two games. With the wins the Panthers now stand at 11-1.

Bloomer came into the game reputed for a multifaceted offense. Bloomer halfback Zach Ruf rushed for 113 or more yards in the Blackhawks' previous four games. The Panther defense wasn't going to let that happen. Ruf was stuffed whether running inside or outside. He was held to 25 yards on 12 carries and no other Bloomer back rushed for more than two yards. Bloomer rushed for 3,100 yards during the season, but only 31 yards on Friday night. The Central defense accomplished this despite Bloomer having the largest group of offensive linemen the Panthers have faced this season.

Bloomer also was known for a potent passing game. The Blackhawks completed six of 14 passes on Friday, but only two did major damage and they were both on trick plays. One was a hook-and-ladder play off a middle screen and another was when the halfback passed back to the quarterback after a handoff.

One reason for Bloomer's difficulty passing was Panther cornerback Mike Steinmetz. Steinmetz intercepted a pass in the second quarter. He broke up several passes during the game, including a perfectly timed breakup of a deep pass late in the second quarter.

The Panther offense was true to its style, with the ability to overcome problems. In the opening drive of the game, the Panthers had a 59-yard touchdown run called back. Facing a first and 25, the Panthers had the 25 yards covered in three plays.

Bloomer's hopes of a comeback hinged on a successful start to the second half. Central's defense knew it and forced Bloomer to punt without a first down. After an exchange of punts, the Panthers started a 76-yard drive late in the third quarter. Runs by Fischer and Nelson set up Berg's score to put Central in front 21-0, and to put the game firmly beyond Bloomer's reach.

Bloomer had beaten MBC opponents from Osceola and Ellsworth the previous two weeks and the Blackhawks were hoping to make it three straight against MBC teams.

It was four years ago that the Central coaches made the decision to run to the wishbone-style offense. Since that change, the Panthers have won 42 games and lost seven.

Freedom comes into Friday's game with a diverse offense that has produced 24 rushing touchdowns and 24 passing touchdowns. DiSalvo said he is confident in his team's abilities.

"I think we're peaking at the right time," DiSalvo said.

He said Freedom's offensive skill players and system have several similarities to New Richmond's offense.

Dave Newman
Dave Newman has been the sports editor at the New Richmond News since 1988. He has covered the action in the Middle Border Conference, Dunn-St. Croix Conference and Big Rivers Conference for nearly 30 years.
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