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Panthers return to state semifinals, face Little Chute Friday

St. Croix Central defensive back Mike Steinmetz (25) covered a Northwestern receiver who made a catch out of bounds on this attempt during Friday's game. Dave Newman / RiverTown Multimedia

For the third straight season, the St. Croix Central football has advanced to the WIAA Division 4 state semifinals.

The Panthers will face Little Chute on Friday in the state semifinal game. Both teams take 12-0 records into the game. Friday's game will be played at Forward Field at Stanley-Boyd High School.

The Panthers got to 12-0 by topping previously unbeaten Northwestern, 21-6, on Friday. Little Chute, the champion of the North Eastern Conference, handled Wrightstown, 28-14, on Friday.

What to expect

When the Panthers won their state championship in 2016, it was Little Chute they defeated in the state semifinal game. That game ended in the Panthers' favor, 23-17. Ryan Larson broke a 17-17 tie in the fourth quarter of that game with a 31-yard touchdown run. That game was also played at Stanley-Boyd High School.

Little Chute is out of a conference that historically has teams go deep into the playoffs and Central coach Tony DiSalvo said this will be extreme test for the Panthers.

"They're huge up front. They've got big offensive and defensive lines," DiSalvo said. He said Little Chute runs a diverse offense, with an almost even, 50-50 split between passing and running the ball.

Friday's win

Big offensive plays and big defensive stands decided Friday's game. It was Northwestern that produced the first big play of the game when Reagan Ruffi broke away for a 67-yard run to the Panther 2-yard line. Central then came up with a huge defensive stand, stopping three Tiger pushes toward the goal line. Northwestern kicked a field goal to lead 3-0 with 7:35 left in the first quarter.

DiSalvo said the key play of the game was the play before the goal line stand. When Ruffi broke free on what looked like it would be a touchdown run, Panther safety Austin Kopacz chased down Ruffi, knocking him out of bounds at the Panther 2-yard line.

"That was huge," DiSalvo said of Kopacz's touchdown-saving tackle.

Central senior Derek Myer was involved in two key plays during the second quarter. The first was a 59-yard punt that helped the Panthers get out of bad field position. It was announced earlier this week that Myer is one of the five finalists for the Kevin Stemke Award, given to the top senior punter in Wisconsin each season.

Myer's second big play produced the game's first touchdown. Myer was running a fly pattern down the Panther sideline. Northwestern defensive back Sam Risley got his hands on the ball first. Almost instantaneously, Myer snatched the ball from between Risley's hands. He remained in stride and was able to race down the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown.

Myer said after the game that his first instinct on the play was to prevent the interception.

"My mindset was to play defense," he said. He said his second concern was to not step out of bounds once he controlled the catch.

DiSalvo said Myer has made a number of key plays for the Panthers, between his kicking and receiving. As a receiver, Myer is averaging 37.4 yards per catch and half of his catches have resulted in touchdowns.

Northwestern added another field goal on the final play of the first half, making the score 7-6. This came after Central's second goal line stand of the half. Northwestern drove to the Central 2, but an incompletion and a delay of game penalty forced the Tigers to attempt the field goal.

Northwestern opened the second half with another drive, but again the Central defense stood its ground. This time, Northwestern missed on a 30-yard field goal attempt.

Not giving up the lead seemed to inspire the Panthers. Five plays later, SCC fullback Ryan Larson spun off a tackle in the middle of the line and raced downfield for a 59-yard touchdown that extended Central's lead to 14-6.

Central's defense reined in Northwestern's offense for much of the rest of the game. Larson added the capper, a 25-yard touchdown with 2:08 left in the game.

Larson again was the leader of the Panthers' ball-control offense. He carried the ball 15 times for 137 yards. He also caught one pass that covered 47 yards and led the Panthers with 11 tackles.

Northwestern came into Friday's game with a reputation for being a team that relied heavily on running the ball. Central's defense forced the Tigers out of their comfort zone. Northwestern threw the ball 57 times in its first 11 games, but the Tigers put the ball in the air 30 times on Friday. They only completed 12 of those 30 passes.

This was the third straight year where Central has eliminated Northwestern from the playoffs. In 2016, it was in the opening round. Last year, it was at Level 2 and this year it happened at Level 3.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.

I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Website Admin and Editor. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work these 30+ years. I was here when the website first went live on April 26, 1986. I consider myself very fortunate to have seen so many changes and to have made so many friends, both co-workers and customers.

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