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Panthers’ win rewarded with buffet

There was an extra incentive for the St. Croix Central football team when the Panthers made the trip to the Twin Cities on Saturday to play at Highland Park High School.

The Panthers knew they’d get to feast at Old Country Buffet if they were winners in Saturday’s non-conference game. The Panthers came hungry, roaring to a 28-0 first quarter lead in defeating Highland Park 42-6.

Central coach Tony DiSalvo said the team enjoyed its time at the buffet, eating like high school boys can eat. He said if they’d have lost, the meal would have been “peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

The Panthers devoured Highland Park like they were making an early stop at the buffet table. A short opening kickoff by Highland Park gave the Panthers excellent field position. In the opening drive, the Panthers got carries of 15-plus yards from Ryan Gulich, Trent Smith and Tony Berg. That set up a 3-yard touchdown by Smith, who also ran in the two-point conversion.

Central answered Highland Park’s short kickoff with one of its own. But this time, the kicking team recovered the kick, giving the Panthers the ball at the Highland Park 37.Ten seconds after Smith scored, the Panthers were in the end zone again. On their first play after recovering the kickoff, Panther quarterback Kyle Larson found receiver Jason Matteson behind the Scots’ defense for the touchdown.

Highland Park then got the ball, but the Scots’ first possession lasted three plays. Two plays after the Highland Park punt, the Panthers scored again. Central’s halfbacks found plenty of running room throughout Saturday’s game. On this score, Ryan Gulich took a pitch and swept around left end for a 71-yard touchdown. With 5:42 of the game played, the Panthers already led 20-0.

The first quarter scoring wasn’t done. Highland Park’s offense revolved around short passes and the Scots were able to get a couple first downs in their next possession before giving the ball up on downs. The Panthers quickly moved into scoring position, with a long run by Berg moving the ball deep into the Scots’ territory.

The fourth Central touchdown of the quarter was scored by Smith, this time on a 6-yard blast. Larson passed to Matteson for the conversion, inflating Central’s lead to 28-0 with 30 seconds left in the opening quarter.

Saturday’s game was played in warm conditions. The early lead allowed the Panthers to substitute freely for the rest of the game.

“We haven’t felt heat like that all year, even in August,” DiSalvo said. The players were fed fruit at halftime to prevent cramps and dehydration.

The Panthers lengthened the lead to 34-0 in the second quarter. It was Gulich scoring again, using an excellent cutback move to complete the 49-yard run.

Gulich and Berg had incredible days Saturday as the Scots were never able to stop the Panther halfbacks. Gulich finished with 192 yards on seven carries and Berg had 63 yards on three attempts. Between them, the Panther halfbacks averaged 28 yards every time they carried the ball.

Central’s final touchdown came midway through the third quarter, with Larson scoring on a 19-yard run. From that point on, the younger Panther players saw most of the game time.

Highland Park’s enrollment is more than three times Central’s enrollment. DiSalvo said his team took pride in clearly outplaying a team from a much larger school.

This Friday the Panthers play a team from a smaller school, but it’s a game with much greater importance. The Panthers will be playing at Spring Valley. The Cardinals need this win badly, because a win would pull them into a tie with the Panthers for the Dunn-St. Croix Conference lead. Spring Valley plays a triple option brand of offense, similar to that used by Central.

“It could really be a grinding type of game,” DiSalvo said. “You’ve got to be sound in your techniques. We can’t afford any foolish mistakes.”

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 more than 30 years.

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