Panthers suffer an overtime heartache
The hopes of becoming a repeat state champion didn't end for the St. Croix Central football team until the final play of the overtime in the WIAA Division 4 state championship game played last Thursday night, Nov. 16 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Central and Lodi waged a powerful, physical game which was tied at 10-10 at the end of regulation. Lodi got the ball first in overtime and was able to score. Central wasn't able to match that score, making Lodi the Division 4 state champions, 17-10.
The Panthers finish the season with a 12-2 record. Over the past four seasons, the Panthers have amassed a 44-8 record, including a 2016 Division 4 state championship and this year's state runner-up finish.
Central was the preseason Division 4 top pick and they faced the scrutiny of getting every team's best attempt to knock off the defending state champion.
"I think we did a really good job, having the big target on our backs," Central coach said of the challenge of being a defending state champion. "We didn't get too high or too low. Our kids really understand how to handle pressure."
In the state championship game, the Panthers had 261 yards of total offense, compared to 171 for Lodi. But the Panthers had rare mistakes that cost them. The Panthers fumbled the ball away twice and committed 69 yards of penalties, 25 of which came in the overtime.
Lodi opened the game with the ball. The Panthers forced a punt, but on Central's first offensive play, the Panthers fumbled the ball away. Lodi only had to go 21 yards for the opening score midway through the first quarter.
It wasn't until the Panthers' third possession, early in the second quarter, that the offense began to get some traction. Mixing the running of fullback Ryan Larson and quarterback Collin Nelson, the Panthers were able to march 68 yards for the tying score. The touchdown came on an 8-yard run from Nelson where he cut upfield off the left end of the Panther line. The score stood at 7-7 at halftime.
The Panthers opened the second half with one of their trademark ball-controlling drives. The drive lasted nearly 11 minutes. The 22nd play of the drive was a 28-yard field goal by Derek Myer, putting Central in front 10-7.
"If we get six out of that drive, I think the game ends differently," DiSalvo said.
Lodi answered with its best drive. The Panther defense stiffened early in the fourth quarter and Lodi was able to get a 30-yard field goal to tie the score at 10-10.
Both teams had chances to try field goals in the final five minutes of the game, but both were off the mark.
Lodi won the coin flip in the overtime and took the ball. Lodi scored the touchdown and extra point. On the kick, the Panthers were called for a personal foul penalty, meaning they'd have to cover 40 yards in the overtime, where normally it would have been 25. The Panthers got one first down in the overtime before the drive stalled.
Both teams featured outstanding running attacks, with hard hitting linemen and hard-charging backs. Lodi was led by the state's leading rusher, Jacob Weyroth, who rushed for 151 yards on 35 carries. Central was led by Larson, who carried for 147 yards on 33 attempts. This was Larson's second straight starring role in a state title game. Last year he rushed for 157 yards in the 49-28 win over River Valley.
DiSalvo said the players were torn up over the loss, but he tried to remind them of all that was accomplished and the effort it took from Lodi to beat them.
"It was a great game. For eight bucks (the fans) got their money's worth," DiSalvo said. "We made some mistakes I've never seen happen before. I thought our defense played very well."
And in true coaching form, at the end of the huddle following the game, DiSalvo told the team that the 2017 season is now over and the 2018 season has begun. With the success of the past two seasons, the Panthers were reminded of the work it took to get to Camp Randall and what it will take to get there again.