Fall Sports Preview: St. Croix Central begins state title defense on Friday
The 2016 WIAA Division 4 state championship trophy is nestled safely in the St. Croix Central High School trophy case.
What can the Panthers do for an encore, and what has the state championship done to the team’s psyche?
Those are questions the Panther coaches are trying to answer before Central opens the season Friday, Aug. 18 with a home non-conference game against Durand.
The state championship was an amazing accomplishment for the Panthers. After finishing 6-3 in the regular season, the Panthers caught fire, winning five straight games, including a 49-28 win over River Valley in the Division 4 state title game.
If the Panthers need their psyche jogged, the just need to remember they play in the Middle Border Conference, one of the most successful mid-enrollment conferences in the state. The MBC has produced four state championship teams in the past six seasons. Memory needs to be sparked that the state championship run almost didn’t happen for the Panthers last season. They needed a win over Prescott in the final week of the regular season to qualify for the state playoffs. The Panthers tied for third in the MBC standings last season with a 4-3 conference record. St. Croix Central coach Tony DiSalvo has tried to warn the 2017 Panthers about what awaits them.
“You’re going to have a big target on you, they saw that in the scrimmage,” DiSalvo said of how several teams ramped up their plans just to face the Panthers in last Friday’s scrimmage at Osceola. “Teams are going to give us their best shot.”
DiSalvo said he expects the MBC to be just as competitive as in past years. He said Osceola will again provide a major challenge and that Baldwin-Woodville and Somerset will both be markedly improved. DiSalvo said the Panthers can be right in the thick of the championship race.
“I think if all things come together and we play well, we certainly can (compete for the title),” DiSalvo said.
For a state championship team, the Panthers didn’t have a senior-laden lineup in 2016. But the seniors that were on the team were excellent players and excellent leaders. DiSalvo said seniors Collin Nelson, Alec Fischer and Cole Gostovich have stepped up to be vocal leaders in the team’s first weeks of practice and in their off-season work.
Nelson returns as the Panther quarterback. It’s a position with excellent depth with Will Soderberg, Austin Kopacz and Trevor Kopacz all in the learning process.
Junior Ryan Larson returns at fullback after rushing for 1,449 yards as a sophomore, including 157 yards and four touchdowns in the state title game. Keagen Berg is his main backup.
Fischer and Mike Steinmetz are the lead halfbacks, with Austin Kopacz, George Vondriska and Jacob Murtha all capable of contributing.
At tight end and split end, the Panthers have a number of options, led by Derek Myer and Payton Nogal. Justin Freyholtz, Brett Mousel, Blake Coleman and Jacob Spaeth could also see time.
There were some significant losses to graduation in both lines. The main candidates for starting offensive line positions are Gostovich, Chris Matteson, Nathan Berends, Hunter Schmidt, Jacob Zimdahl and Joe Hueg. DiSalvo said there’s going to be a lot expected of these linemen, especially early in the season, as the team waits for depth to develop.
The lack of experience carries to the defensive front, especially at end where both starters graduated. Gostovich, Nogal, Coleman, Myer and Soderberg are all sharing time at the start of the season. Matteson, Zimdahl, Hueg, Schmidt, Justin Arthur and Jimmy Brandvold give the Panthers a brawny group of interior linemen.
Larson returns at linebacker, with Fischer and Berg stepping into starting assignments. Myer and Vondriska will also be worked in here.
“Fischer’s had a really good off-season, he’s up to 185 pounds,” DiSalvo said.
The secondary was young last season and that experience leads the coaches to believe this will be a strength for the defense. Steinmetz and Austin Kopacz are expected to handle the corners. Kopacz led the Panthers in tackles in the state championship game. Mousel, Nelson and Freyholtz will see time at safety.
Myer will handle the punting and Larson will kick extra points after they both saw considerable successin those roles last season.
The Panthers start the season with non-conference games against Durand and Elk Mound. Durand is the school that swapped conferences with Central three years ago and Durand won the Dunn-St. Croix Conference title last year. Elk Mound was also a playoff team last year.
Central starts its MBC schedule on Sept. 1 against Ellsworth.
As defending state champions, the Central squad will be watched closely as opponents look for a way to knock off the champ.
“I think, if we keep our noses to the grindstone, we’re capable of a lot of good things,” DiSalvo said. “Every single down and every single game is important.”