Clash of the undefeated as St. Croix Central football hosts Northwestern Friday
The St. Croix Central and Somerset football teams have a long history of exciting battles, especially in the WIAA playoffs.
That continued last Friday, when the undefeated Panthers got all they could handle from the fourth-seeded Spartans. Two big offensive plays by Central ended up being the keys to the game as the Panthers were able to advance with a 21-7 win over the Spartans.
The top-seeded Panthers will play at home again this Friday at 7 p.m. in a Level 3 playoff game against second-seeded Northwestern, which is also unbeaten. This will be the third straight year that Central and Northwestern have met in the Division 4 playoffs. In 2016, Central defeated Northwestern 35-20 in an opening round game. Last year, Central and Northwestern met in the second round of the playoffs, where Central won 28-0.
Northwestern is led by Reagan Ruffi, who has rushed for 1,844 yards this season.
You could tell the level of respect Central coach Tony DiSalvo has for Northwestern in the post-game speech he had after Friday's win over Somerset. Instead of being upbeat, DiSalvo was giving one of his most spirited speeches of the season. He said the fire was shown because he knows that every Central player will need to be at their best to get a win on Friday.
"Some of our guys need to focus more during the week," DiSalvo said.
It took all the Panthers' focus to hold off a battle-ready Somerset team last Friday. DiSalvo and Somerset coach Bruce Larson have known each other for decades and they know each other's coaching styles. This was the 13th time that Central and Somerset have played against each other since 2004 and nine of those games have been in the WIAA playoffs. Central joined the Middle Border Conference in 2015, so the teams are now guaranteed to meet at least once per season. In that time, Somerset won the first seven games. Since 2015, Central has won six-straight games over Somerset.
Both teams scored on their first possession Friday and it looked like it might be a battle of offenses.
Keagen Berg carried on the first five plays of the game for Central. That softened up the Spartan defense for fullback Ryan Larson. Larson bowled over three Somerset defenders on his way to a 45-yard touchdown, putting Central ahead with 3 minutes, 24 seconds played in the opening frame.
Somerset answered with one of its finest drives of the season. The Spartans produced first downs on five-straight plays. The fifth was a 13-yard touchdown run by Jack Peterson, who barreled over a Panther defender to reach the goal line. This made the score 7-7, not even halfway through the first quarter.
Central ate up most of the second quarter with a 14-play scoring drive. Larson finished the drive with 1:20 left on the clock. Central took the 14-7 lead into the halftime break.
The final touchdown of the game was the result of a remarkable play by Central quarterback Austin Kopacz. On third down, it appeared Somerset had Kopacz sacked. He spun out of the tackler's grasp and rolled toward the right sideline. Central receiver Derek Myer had kept moving downfield and was wide open behind the Somerset defense. Kopacz heaved a pass downfield that Myer caught for a 72-yard touchdown.
One key difference in this game was Central's passing success. The rushing yards were relatively even, with Central gaining 226 and Somerset 184. Central was able to gain 135 yards through the air. Somerset didn't have any completions and two of the Spartan passes resulted in interceptions.
Coach Larson said the Somerset players played as hard as they could in the game, which left the Spartans with a 6-5 season record. Berg ended the game with 30 carries, compared to six for Ryan Larson and three by Kopacz. Both coaches said that was a result of the defense Somerset was running, which crashed hard on the quarterback and fullback, causing Kopacz to steadily give the ball to Berg.
"This was a fun game. It was well played on both sides," Coach Larson said.