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Panthers are state champions!!

St. Croix Central football players stretch to get their first touch of the 2016 Division 4 state championship trophy after the Panthers defeated River Valley, 49-28, in the WIAA Division 4 state football championship game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison last Thursday. (Photo by Nate Peterson)1 / 10
St. Croix Central senior halfback Cole Refsnider (46) outruns River Valley’s Ryan Wickman (42) to the corner of the end zone for Central’s first touchdown in the Division 4 state championship game. (Photo by Dave Newman)2 / 10
St. Croix Central lineman Cole Gostovich (64) lets the officials know that Ryan Larson scored on this first half play at the goal line. (Photo by Dave Newman)3 / 10
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The St. Croix Central football poses for its state championship photo after winning the WIAA Division 4 state title with a 49-28 win over River Valley at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison last Thursday. (Photo by Dave Newman)6 / 10
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St. Croix Central senior Nick Jones (33) led the Panthers onto the Camp Randall Stadium turf for the start of warmups for the state title game. Jones, who is enlisting in the U.S. Marines, led the Panthers onto the field for several games this season. (Photo by Dave Newman)8 / 10
St. Croix Central captains Cole Refsnider (46), Trevor Nelson (12) and Jason Pribnow (71) pose with the state championship trophy and the chain which has linked the team all season. (Photo by Dave Newman)9 / 10
St. Croix Central sophomore Ryan Larson received the ESPN Gatorade Player of the Game Award for his performance in the Division 4 state championship game. (Photo by Dave Newman)10 / 10

The incredible run by the St. Croix Central football team through the WIAA playoffs has resulted in the second state football championship in school history.

The Panthers faced River Valley in the WIAA Division 4 state title game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison last Thursday. The Panthers dominated in nearly every facet of the game, rolling to a 49-28 win. The other state championship won by Central came in 1988 when the Panthers defeated Waterloo in the Division 5 state championship game under Coach Gary Reineck, 28-14.

Central ends its championship season with an 11-3 record. It’s pretty amazing, considering the Panthers needed to beat Prescott on the final night of the regular season to qualify for the playoffs. Central coach Tony DiSalvo said there were two tipping points to the season. The first was a 21-20 upset loss at the hands of Baldwin-Woodville. That game forced everyone in the Central system to reevaluate what was happening. After that loss, the Panthers won seven of their final eight games.

DiSalvo said the second tipping point was the second round playoff win over undefeated Osceola, the defending Division 4 state champion. He said that loss helped the Panthers to believe they were in a position that a championship was a real possibility.

The Panthers certainly played like it in the state title game. The Panthers opened the game with a 78-yard drive and they never let go of the lead. The Panthers relied heavily on the ball carrying of Ryan Larson and Cole Refsnider. They both had 16-yard runs in the opening drive, which Refsnider finished on an 8-yard sprint to the corner of the end zone. The drive took more than seven minutes and it helped the Panthers relax.

“I thought that was a key ingredient,” DiSalvo said of scoring on the opening drive. “Everyone came (off the field) saying we’re in good shape, (River Valley) doesn’t know how to stop the triple option.”

While the Central defense gave up 28 points, it also produced an enormous number of big plays. River Valley’s first possession was ended when Luke Rohl and Cody Kavitz broke up deep pass attempts. River Valley then tried to punt, by Central senior defensive end Trevor Nelson blocked the kick. Larson recovered at the River Valley 38. It was one of several big plays from Nelson, who joined Alec Fischer in giving the Panthers a strong outside pass rush through the game.

The Panthers quickly took advantage of the turnover, with Larson scoring on a 1-yard blast at the 10:43 mark of the second quarter.

Central’s defense then made a stop, which led to another Panther drive. The drive ended with Larson scoring on another 1-yard plunge with 26 seconds left in the half. Central led 21-0 at the break.

In that drive, River Valley was called for the first of five personal foul penalties. The Panthers didn’t have any.

“Our kids didn’t retaliate. I thought that was really classy by our kids,” DiSalvo said.

The Panthers used incredible ball control in the first half, including going 9-9 on third down conversions.

River Valley opened the second half with a scoring drive, reminding the Panthers their work wasn’t done yet. River Valley then stopped the Panther offense for the first time, forcing a punt. The Blackhawks didn’t have the ball long. Central linebacker Cody Kavitz made a juggling interception at the River Valley 43. It led to Larson’s third touchdown of the night, a three-yard burst that made the score 28-6.

The scores began happening quickly. River Valley drove 60 yards for a score, cutting the margin to 28-14. Central answered right back. Refsnider broke free for a 70-yard run, getting tripped up at the Blackhawk two-yard line. River Valley tried to make a defensive stand, but on fourth down Larson was able to plow into the end zone.

River Valley then fumbled the ball right back to Central, with Nick Jones recovering. That led to a 12-yard run by Refsnider with 8:31 left in the game, making the score 42-14.

River Valley struck back with a 94-yard touchdown pass, but the Panthers finished the scoring with a 9-yard run from quarterback Colin Nelson with four minutes left in the game.

Nelson is one of the stories of strength in the game. He, Larson and Refsnider all were injured during the game, but all played through the injuries.

“Collin played three-and-a-half quarters with a separated shoulder,” DiSalvo said. “What a gutsy effort.”

The Panthers went into the game hoping their running game could control the clock against the pass-happy Blackhawks. It worked as well as the Panthers could have dreamed. The Panthers held the ball for more than 34 minutes of the game, compared to 13 minutes for River Valley.

With the game well in hand, the Panther coaches made sure all of the team’s seniors got to see action in the game.

There are two current Panthers who are sons of players from the 1988 team. Derek Myer is the son of Todd Myer, one of the famed Myer triplets who were key ingredients in the 1988 success. Braeden Bloom is the son of Kevin Bloom, who was an all-state lineman in 1988.

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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