Football: Panthers ready for showdown of state champions

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The showdown is on.

The St. Croix Central and Osceola football teams clash this Friday on the artificial turf in Osceola with the Middle Border Conference lead on the line.

Both teams locked up berths in the WIAA state playoffs with their victories Friday, Sept. 22. They both stand alone at the top of the MBC standings with 4-0 records. This game pits the 2016 WIAA Division 4 state champion (Central) against the 2015 WIAA Division 4 state champion (Osceola). Osceola has a winning streak of more than 20 games going in the MBC. Central was the only team to defeat Osceola in 2016, knocking the Chieftains out in the second round of the WIAA playoffs.

Central coach Tony DiSalvo tried the low key approach to the game, but it didn't last long.

"We'll be there, I guarantee it," he said. "We've got to be ready for a dogfight. We've got to control the ball, first and foremost."

The Panthers know their biggest challenge will be stopping the Osceola passing combination of quarterback Brett Carlson to receiver Haakon Carlson.

Central improved to 6-0 overall with a 43-8 win over Amery on Friday, while Osceola reached the same mark with a 31-14 win against Prescott.

Central rolled through the Amery squad with little trouble. By the end of the first quarter the Panthers had already built a 21-0 lead and it was extended to 35-0 before halftime.

DiSalvo said this Friday's game may be the first time this season where the Panthers have played at full strength. Alec Fischer sat out the last two games and Peyton Nogal sat out against Amery.

In comparing this season's Panthers to the team of this time in 2016, one of the main differences is how the Panthers are making fewer mistakes than last season. The Panthers have minimized their turnovers and penalties, which has made them a more dangerous and consistent team.

"A lot of it has to do with leadership," DiSalvo said. "Having Collin (Nelson) back playing quarterback and knowing the offense is big, having the experience in the backfield."

The Panther running backs looked in top form on Friday. The line, led by standout guards Chris Matteson and Hunter Schmidt, created numerous holes. Fullback Ryan Larson rushed for 120 yards and four touchdowns and halfback Keagen Berg finished with 84 yards on 10 attempts. For the game, the Panthers averaged 7.3 yards per rush.

Central's run defense had another outstanding night. The Panthers limited Amery to 38 yards rushing for the night on 24 carries. Schmidt and Larson led the Panther defense with nine tackles, with more than 20 Panthers contributing tackles. Justin Freyholtz also intercepted one of Amery's passes.

The Panther coaches decided to do a nice gesture toward the scout team during Friday's game. Instead of having the varsity starters announced, the scout team was announced to get its moment in the limelight.

"That was nice for those kids to get some recognition. They never get any and they get the hell beat out of them every week," DiSalvo said.