The St. Croix Central football team will attempt to win the third WIAA state championship in program history this Thursday when the Panthers battle Lodi in the Division 4 state title game.

The game will be played at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison at 7 p.m. The Panthers carry a 12-1 record into the state title game, while Lodi comes in at 13-0.

St. Croix Central is the defending Division 4 state champion after defeating River Valley 49-28 in the 2016 Division 4 state title game. Central won its initial state football championship in 1988.

This will be Lodi's second trip to the state title game. Lodi faced another Middle Border Conference opponent in its Division 4 state title game appearance in 2015, losing to Osceola, 28-0.

The 2017 Lodi team is lead by the state's leading rusher, senior Jacob Heyroth. He has rushed for 2,758 yards this season, averaging 10 yards per carry. Lodi advanced to the state title game by defeating Martin Luther, 17-0, while Central was defeating Freedom, 42-21.

Freedom isn't free

The Panthers faced Freedom in the state semifinal game at Merrill, on a snow-covered artificial turf surface at Bay Stadium in Merrill. Conditions were cold and brisk, but the Panthers barely had a miscue with the ball. Freedom on the other hand, threw one interception and put the ball on the turf several times.

Central's offense was only stopped once all night. The Panthers opened the game with an 88-yard drive where they gashed the Irish defense with several big plays. The longest of those was a 36-yard run by Austin Kopacz, who was filling in at halfback for an injured Keagen Berg. Fullback Ryan Larson finished the drive with a nine-yard run.

Freedom struck back quickly, by getting the ball out to the flat for several big games. The Irish scored on a 38-yard pass.

Central's next drive resulted in a 12-yard punt, giving Freedom excellent field position. Freedom scored on another pass play and took a 14-6 lead into the second quarter.

Central coach Tony DiSalvo said an adjustment was made after Freedom's second score. The outside linebackers were placed further out along the line of scrimmage, taking away the crackback blocks that were springing Freedom's big plays.

Nothing Freedom's defense did could stop Central. Larson and quarterback Collin Nelson both rushed for 150 yards and the Panthers finished with 390 yards on the ground.

Perhaps the biggest offensive play for the Panthers came on a pass. On a fourth and short, the Panthers faked a handoff to Larson into the line. Halfback Alec Fischer circled out of the backfield and was standing all alone in the end zone when Nelson found him for a 19-yard touchdown pass that tied the game at 14-14. This started a 36-0 scoring run for the Panthers that put the game out of reach.

Freedom fumbled on its next possession and Panther defensive end Peyton Nogal recovered. Nelson quickly cashed in, with his 19-yard run putting the Panthers ahead 21-14.

Freedom tried a long pass in the final minutes of the first half, but it was intercepted by Austin Kopacz.

The Panthers scored off a long drive, in the final seconds of the third quarter, to go ahead 28-14. Larson crushed any hopes Freedom held onto by barreling through the heart of the Freedom defense for a 45-yard run early in the fourth quarter.

Making it back

DiSalvo has been in the coaching business more than 30 years and he knows how rare a feat it is to reach the state title once, much less in consecutive seasons.

"I knew we had some pretty talented kids. Playing in the Middle Border really helped us," DiSalvo said.

Central is hoping to make it four straight years where the MBC has won the Division 4 state championship. Previous to Central's win last year, Osceola won the Division 4 title in 2015 and Somerset won it in 2014.

A ritual this season for the Panthers is singing Kenny Chesney's "The Boys of Fall" in the team huddle after a win.

"Hopefully we can sing it again about 9:30 on Thursday," DiSalvo said. "Those are special times."