It's all about the gold for the St. Croix Central football team.
Primarily, the gold ball that goes to the WIAA state champion.
Central will play in the Division 4 state championship game at 7 p.m. Thursday. Central advanced to its third straight state title game by defeating Little Chute 48-25 on Friday. That sectional championship game was played in horrifically cold and windy conditions. Central had trouble with the weather early in the game, falling behind 13-0 before charging back to take control of the game.
Central will face Racine St. Catherine's, which defeated Lakeside Lutheran 30-28 in the other state semifinal game. St. Croix Central and Racine St. Catherine's both bring 13-0 records into the state championship game.
This is the third straight season that Central has played in the state title game and the fourth time overall at state for the Panthers. It is the first trip to state for Racine St. Catherine's since the private schools joined the WIAA. Central defeated River Valley 49-28 in the 2016 state championship game. Last year, Central reached the Division 4 state title game, but was defeated by Lodi, 17-10.
St. Croix Central coach Tony DiSalvo said he hopes the Panthers' experience at state will be an advantage in dealing with the excitement of the week. DiSalvo said the Panthers' schedule also weighs in the team's favor. The Panthers defeated undefeated opponents the past two weeks in Northwestern and Little Chute.
With the Panthers reaching Camp Randall again this year, the Middle Border Conference has placed a team in the Division 4 state championship game in seven of eight seasons. Somerset reached the title game in 2011, 2012 and 2014, winning the final two. Osceola won the D4 state title in 2015. And now it is three straight appearances for Central.
"Our conference is a great conference. We have great coaches. You have to be ready every week," DiSalvo said.
Racine St. Catherine's
St. Catherine's is the champion of the Metro Classic Conference and will be Central's third straight unbeaten opponent. Of the 14 teams competing at state, nine are unbeaten. The 14 teams have a total of seven losses combined.
DiSalvo said RSC runs a spread offense, based around quarterback Da'Shawn Brown and halfback Isaiah Dodd. Dodd rushed for 221 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Lakeside Lutheran. Brown and Dodd have both rushed for more than 1,400 yards this season. RSC is also effective throwing the ball. Brown has 68 passes completed, but 25 of them have gone for touchdowns. Brown is a first team all-state selection, as are two of RSC's linemen.
The weather provided an added layer of difficulty to Friday's game at Stanley-Boyd, with a whipping wind adding to bone-chilling temperatures. The cold appeared to hamper the Panthers in the opening minutes of the game. Central fumbled the ball away in its first two possessions of the game. Little Chute took advantage of both turnovers. Those touchdowns put Central at a 13-0 disadvantage with 3 minutes, 40 seconds elapsed in the game.
It was late in the first quarter that Central put together a drive that will live on in team history. Little Chute punted the ball to the Central 1-yard line. The Panthers then went on a 16-play, 99-yard march that stretched into the second quarter. It was Panther ball control at its finest. The drive was capped on a 2-yard blast by senior fullback Ryan Larson.
In that drive, the Panthers found their composure and confidence and they were clearly the better team the rest of the game.
DiSalvo said one of the key plays in that drive was a third down completion from quarterback Austin Kopacz to Derek Myer. The pass was thrown into the wind, but Myer adjusted and came back to the ball to make the 27-yard reception.
The Panthers forced Little Chute into a punt, and the Panthers immediately capitalized. Larson met a Little Chute defender in the hole, but like so many times this season, Larson led that defender crumpled on the turf. Larson broke away for a 48-yard touchdown and Jackson Pettit's extra point kick gave Central a 14-13 lead. The Panthers would never trail again.
Little Chute had to play into the wind in the second quarter. That resulted in a short punt late in the quarter, giving Central the ball at the Little Chute 45 with 2:35 left on the clock. Kopacz gained 18 yards on the first play and the Panthers drove for the score. Larson scored on a 2-yard blast with 11 seconds remaining in the half. Central carried a 21-13 lead into halftime.
Little Chute showed why it was unbeaten with a 62-yard drive to open the second half. Most of that yardage was covered by passing, and the Mustangs' score cut the lead to 21-19.
Larson immediately answered that score. On the Panthers' first play after the kickoff, Larson broke free for an 86-yard touchdown run. While Larson doesn't get credit for his speed, you don't see defenders catching up to him when he breaks into the open field. That score upped Central's lead to 27-19.
Little Chute still had the wind at its back and the Mustangs hit a 39-yard pass to the Central 1-yard line. That set up the fourth score by Little Chute fullback Bryce Schumacher. The Mustangs tried a pass for a two-point conversion that would have tied the game, but Kopacz made a diving deflection to prevent the ball from reaching the receiver.
The fourth quarter was all Central. The Panthers opened the quarter with a 64-yard scoring drive. Larson again did the honors, this time on a 5-yard run. Pettit's kick made the score 34-25, meaning Little Chute would need to score twice to overtake the Panthers. That wasn't going to happen.
DiSalvo said one of the keys to the game was winning the coin flip, which meant the Panthers had control of the weather. Their goal was to have Little Chute playing into the wind in the fourth quarter, knowing the biting wind would wreak havoc on the Mustangs' passing game.
Little Chute tried passing into the wind, but with futile results. On fourth down, Central defensive back Trevor Kopacz cut in front of a Little Chute receiver, carrying the interception 30 yards for the touchdown. The Panthers now led 41-25 with 6:19 remaining.
The Central defense also stopped Little Chute on downs in its next possession. This time it was halfback Keagen Berg who scored, breaking away for 24 yards for the final touchdown of the game. Berg reached the 1,000-yard mark for the season with his touchdown run. The Panthers may be the only team in the state with three 1,000-yard rushers this season. Berg now has 1,014 yards. Larson has rushed for 1,493 and Kopacz has 1,110 yards this season.