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St. Croix Central qualfies for WIAA football playoffs, thunders past Elk Mound 41-6

After the first play from scrimmage, the St. Croix Central football team had its chance at a place in the WIAA state football playoffs under control.

The Panthers handed the ball to senior Dante Carlson on that opening play and he responded by racing 71 yards down the Panther sideline for a touchdown. The Panthers were never threatened the rest of the night, blasting Elk Mound 41-6.

Central is one of five Dunn-St. Croix Conference football teams that qualified for the WIAA playoffs. Colfax was in a similar position to Central on Friday and the Vikings also responded, defeating Boyceville 18-14.

The Panthers are part of the Division 4 tournament bracket. The seeding for this region was done on Saturday, with the Panthers receiving the bottom seed because of their 3-6 overall record. The Panthers will open playoff action this Friday by playing at Ellsworth. Ellsworth was seeded first in this region after going 9-0 and winning the Middle Border Conference championship.

Friday’s win breaks a three-game losing streak for the Panthers. Each of Central’s most recent four losses have come against playoff qualifiers, including two undefeated teams (Mondovi and Arcadia) and a team with one loss (defending Division 7 state champion Glenwood City).  Panther coach Tony DiSalvo said that difficult stretch in the schedule has masked some of the progress his team has been making.

The Panthers have cut down their turnovers over the past few weeks, while their defense has been forcing more turnovers. DiSalvo said the team was filled with many inexperienced players at the start of the season. He said the mental errors have dropped sharply as the players have adjusted to the varsity level.

“Now they understand the speed and the pace it takes to win,” DiSalvo said.

DiSalvo said the Panthers have also become a much better tackling team and that was evident on Friday. The Panthers were the bigger and stronger team in Friday’s game and they used that advantage to control the line of scrimmage, on offense and defense.

Offensively the Panthers ran the ball with steady success. Carlson’s opening run was on a jet sweep to the outside, but most of the Panthers’ yardage came on blasts between the tackles. Central averaged 9.1 yards per carry on the ground, which included four touchdowns.

The Panther defense shut Elk Mound down cold. The Mounders averaged 2.1 yards per carry, with most of their yardage coming during a fourth quarter scoring drive after Central had cleared its bench. Every Panther player who dressed for the game saw playing time. The Panther defense intercepted three passes in the game and two defensive touchdowns were called back because of penalties.

Six different Panthers scored in the game, including senior Wyatt Sain scoring his first varsity touchdown. Elk Mound scored its only touchdown in the final minute of the game. Central’s Tony Berg took the ensuing kickoff 94 yards to score the final touchdown. Berg was able to score when Ryan Gulich delivered a bone-jarring block on the last Mounder pursuing Berg.

It was an exciting night for the Panther seniors, who got to leave their home field victorious in their final home game.

The Panthers respect the fact that they are underdogs heading into the playoffs. They also recognize the opportunity it gives them. The Panthers were a seventh seed last year and they upset Northland Pines and Barron in the first two rounds of 2012 Division 4 action.

DiSalvo said the Panthers have to be prepared to tackle well against Dennis Schutz, Ellsworth’s breakaway back. He said the offense will need to be ready to react quickly, because Ellsworth sends blitz packages on nearly every play.

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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