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Central defense at center of success

St. Croix Central's Austin Kopacz (11) breaks away for the punt return touchdown he scored during the win at Ellsworth last Friday. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

Ellsworth was reputed to have a high-powered passing game.

The St. Croix Central football defense shot down that reputation last Friday.

In the 2017 Middle Border Conference opener last Friday, Central took charge early and never let go, defeating Ellsworth 24-6.

This game was supposed to be a test of the Central pass defense. If it was, Central's defense passed with flying colors. Ellsworth was limited to three pass completions in the game and none of the Ellsworth receivers had more than one reception.

"Our defensive backs really rose to the occasion," said Central coach Tony DiSalvo. "And we had a good pass rush."

Central's defense held Ellsworth to zero yards of offense in the first half.

Central's offense didn't have a huge night, but the Panthers played to control the clock, especially after building up a 21-0 advantage in the first half.

The opening drive of the game showed how Central would control the game. The Central offense systematically marched down the field, other than one run by fullback Keagen Berg. Berg cut through a hole created by linemen Hunter Schmidt and Joe Hueg for 37 yards. That was the one big play, otherwise the Panthers pounded out the yardage. Senior halfback Alec Fischer capped the drive with a four-yard scoring run.

The defense set up Central's next score. With Ellsworth pinned deep in its own territory, quarterback Drake Flom tried a sideline pass. Central defensive back Mike Steinmetz was waiting, cutting in for the interception, which he returned to the Ellsworth 9-yard line. On the next play, Berg broke through another man-sized hole for the touchdown.

Berg was filling in on both sides of the ball for Central leading rusher Ryan Larson, who was given the game off to let some injuries mend. DiSalvo was quite definite in saying that Larson would be back in the Central lineup this Friday.

Berg performed quite solidly in both of Larson's roles. Berg led Central with 75 yards rushing on nine carries. Berg may have had a bigger impact on defense. He and Fischer shared the team lead in tackles with 10. Berg also recorded five tackles for loss, including three quarterback sacks.

The Central defense totalled six quarterback sacks.

Special teams accounted for the final 10 points of the night for Central. Austin Kopacz is rapidly becoming the team's big-play threat. In the previous game, he scored on a long pass from quarterback Collin Nelson. In the second quarter at Ellsworth, Kopacz sliced through the center of the Ellsworth punt coverage for a 54-yard touchdown return.

Central's final points came on a 27-yard field goal by Derek Myer in the fourth quarter. Myer was an All-MBC punter last year and he may be more of a special teams weapon this year. He was 3-3 on his extra point attempts Friday and he averaged 40 yards on his punts.

Central will host New Richmond this Friday in a game both teams need to fulfill their hopes of winning a Middle Border Conference championship. This is Central's third year in the MBC and the two previous seasons have brought gritty defensive battles against New Richmond. Last year, New Richmond came away with a 20-12 win. In 2015, Central won by a 9-6 score.

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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