Through much of Friday’s WIAA Division 4 Level 2 playoff game at Freedom, St. Croix Central held a double-digit lead. The Panthers led by 17 points early in the fourth quarter.

But the Panthers could not finish the job. The undefeated Irish scored 23 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and overtime to end Central’s season, 49-43. Central ends the season with an 8-3 record, after reaching the state championship game each of the past three seasons.

After holding a healthy lead for much of the game, the suddenness of the comeback and loss was like a punch in the gut to the Panthers.

“We couldn’t make the play when it was provided to us in the second half to put the game away,” said Central coach John Tackmann.

With four minutes remaining, Central led by 10. That’s when the Panthers broke a long run into Freedom territory. But at the end of the play, the Panthers fumbled and Freedom quickly drove 86 yards to cut Central’s lead to 43-40.

Central could have put the game away with a first down on its next possession, but couldn’t convert on a third-and-four situation and was forced to punt. Freedom quickly moved the ball into range and kicked a 37-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.

Central had the ball first in the overtime period, but after four plays the Panthers were stopped. Freedom only needed two plays to end the game. On the first play, the Irish had a long run, but fumbled at the six-yard line. It was a sign of how the end of the game was going when the fumbled ball rolled forward five yards and out of bounds at the one. Freedom scored on a quarterback sneak on the next play to end the game.

The finish was a stunning turn of events after the Panthers controlled the game from the start with a diversified running attack. The Panthers ran the ball 72 times in the game.

“Mid-line, veer, play action, we controlled the ball,” Tackman said. “We were in control of the game most of the way.”

The Panthers scored twice in the first quarter to build a 15-0 lead. Braeden Bloom and Gabe Siler capped the drives with short touchdown runs.

Freedom then struck back on a 59-yard touchdown pass. The Panthers got touchdown runs from Tadan Holzer and Trevor Kopacz in the second quarter to lead 29-13 at halftime.

Holzer was Central’s leading rusher in a balanced ground attack finishing with 20 carries for 89 yards. Kopacz and Bloom both carried the ball 15 times, with Kopacz rushing for 65 yards and Bloom 62 yards. Holzer completed three of his five pass attempts for 114 yards.

The scoring pattern of the second quarter continued into the third, with Freedom scoring on big plays and the Panthers scoring off drives. Freedom opened the second half with a 65-yard touchdown run. Freedom then struck for a 67-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-17 situation.

Siler opened the scoring in the fourth quarter with a short run, putting Central in front, 43-26. In the fourth quarter the Panthers had their hands on several Freedom passes, but couldn’t pull any of them in for a turnover that would have stemmed the Irish’s momentum.

Tackmann said the Panthers played “fine” offensively for much of the game. He said Freedom found some things to exploit within the Panther defense and the Panthers couldn’t adjust to those flaws.

“It was a blown opportunity. They executed where we didn’t,” Tackmann said.