HAMMOND, Wis. -- St. Croix Central’s last state football championship came in 2016. And while there will be no state championship games in Wisconsin in this “COVID year,” as Central football coach John Tackman calls it, that didn’t stop the Panthers from celebrating like they had won a state title Friday night.

The Panthers got a 3-yard touchdown run from Mason Dado with 12 seconds remaining, then stopped Onalaska’s last-gasp hook-and-three-laterals as time expired, to defeat the fifth-ranked Hilltoppers 31-27 and send the Central sideline into delirium.

“That’s one of the most fun games I’ve ever coached,” Tackman said. “There’s no state tournament this year -- we’re just playing football to have fun, something we didn’t think we’d be able to do this year. And gosh I’m proud of the way they played. Their backs were against the wall and they rallied back.”

The game featured five lead changes in the second half after Onalaska took a 14-10 lead into the locker room.

St. Croix Central linebacker Jayden Goodwin (47) makes an ankle tackle on Onalaska’s Michael Savarin for a loss in the backfield in the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ 31-27 victory over the Hilltoppers Friday night, Oct. 16, in Hammond. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
St. Croix Central linebacker Jayden Goodwin (47) makes an ankle tackle on Onalaska’s Michael Savarin for a loss in the backfield in the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ 31-27 victory over the Hilltoppers Friday night, Oct. 16, in Hammond. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

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Central’s final rally came after Onalaska scored to take a 27-24 lead with just over three minutes remaining. The Hilltoppers tried to catch the Panthers off guard and tried a potential game-sealing onside kick, but Central’s Derek Weber somehow emerged from the bottom of the pile with the ball near midfield, and the Panthers converted a 3rd-and-19 and a 4th-and-1 before Dado took it the final three yards on third down with 12 seconds remaining.

Onalaska had one last chance from its own 21-yard line, but after a pass and two laterals got them to midfield, the Hilltoppers' third lateral attempt hit the ground and was covered by Central’s Gabe Siler and the Panther celebration was on.

Tackman pointed to Weber’s onside kick recovery as a prime example of the grit the Panthers played with.

“He fought his tail off,” the coach noted. “If he doesn’t fight his tail off, that’s a play people are going to forget. If he doesn’t fight his tail off to get that ball, we never score. It’s their ball and the game’s over.”

Tackman said it was also the first time the Panthers had all their players suited up and eligible since the Wednesday before their second game of the season against Baldwin-Woodville.

“I’d say we had 17 kids out last week and the week before due to contact tracing,” he noted. “So actually most of the guys we just welcomed back yesterday. So it was like a welcome back party yesterday and it was great to see all the kids together having fun tonight. We had our bumps, but some of these kids haven’t played football in 14 days. And to see the excitement and emotions running when they’re playing is just great.”

Onalaska capitalized on a Panther turnover near midfield late in the first quarter and turned it into a 28-yard touchdown pass from Ayden Larson to Levi Cavadini to take a 7-0 lead. But Collin Fischer broke free for a 66-yard run on the first play of the Panthers’ ensuing possession and quarterback Tadan Holzer scored on 4th-and-goal from the five to tie things up.

A 60-yard bomb from Larson to Adam Skifton put the Hilltoppers back on top 14-7, and Central moved deep into Hilltopper territory before turning the ball over again at the 11, but Onalaska gave the ball right back to the Panthers and Jackson Pettit drilled a 28-yard field goal to cut the lead to 14-10 at the break.

Onalaska had a 1st-and-goal on their opening possession of the second half but the Panthers forced a fumble and marched 95 yards, ending with a 28-yard TD run by Holzer to take their first lead of the game, 17-14. Onalaska came right back with a 66-yard touchdown run from Albert Romero to take a 21-17 lead at the end of three.

St. Croix Central tight end Jackson Pettit (98) avoids a pair of Onalaska defenders at the five-yard line and finds the end zone to complete a 15-yard catch and run from quarterback Tadan Holzer to give the Panthers a 24-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter Friday night, Oct. 16, in Hammond. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
St. Croix Central tight end Jackson Pettit (98) avoids a pair of Onalaska defenders at the five-yard line and finds the end zone to complete a 15-yard catch and run from quarterback Tadan Holzer to give the Panthers a 24-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter Friday night, Oct. 16, in Hammond. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

Central faced a 4th-and-7 at the Hilltopper 15 midway through the fourth quarter when Holzer hit Pettit on a slant at the five and Pettit dodged a pair of defenders to find the end zone and put the Panthers back on top, 24-21. But Onalaska answered again, this time with an 18-yard touchdown pass to a tip-toeing Hudson Weber in the back of the end zone, to go ahead 27-24 with just over three minutes remaining.

That’s when Onalaska surprised everybody by attempting an onside kick, and in the scrum that followed Weber came up with the ball near midfield to give the Panthers new life.

After a holding call pushed the Panthers into a 3rd-and-19, Tolzer found Pettitt at the Hilltopper 24, and after a muffed snap on 3rd-and-1, Siler leaped over the pile for a first down at the Hilltopper 12 with 40 seconds remaining.

Two plays, and a Panther time out later, Dado bulled over from the 3-yard line and Pettit kicked his fourth extra point of the game with 12 seconds left to make the final 31-27.

Holzer completed 6-of-13 passes for 118 yards and carried the ball 17 times for 94 yards while Siler finished with 80 yards rushing on 16 attempts and Pettit caught four passes for 96 yards.

The win gives St. Croix Central a record of 3-1 heading into next week’s visit to Osceola, and Tackman said the Panthers are just appreciating every opportunity they get to take the field together.

“It’s crazy to think this is technically week nine of a normal season, when it’s game number four in the Covid year,” he said. “And we’re just enjoying every opportunity to be out here because it’s a sport those kids love and it’s a sport us coaches love to coach. So we’re just happy.”

Somerset handed first loss at Baldwin

Baldwin-Woodville scored a pair of second quarter touchdowns to take a 13-point lead into the locker room and held off Somerset in the second half to hand the Spartans their first loss of the season, 39-29, in Baldwin.

Jack Casey ran for two touchdowns, Carson Peterson ran for one and Tate Pitcher threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Caleb Melvin but the Spartans eventually ran out of time in the 10-point loss.

Casey had a four-yard touchdown run to open the scoring and Peterson scored from 14 yards out to make it a 14-14 game after one, but the host Blackhawks outscored the Spartans 13-0 in the second quarter, including a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown, to take a 27-14 lead at the break.

Casey’s one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter made it a 27-21 game but Baldwin-Woodville scored twice again before Pitcher and Melvin hooked up with 2:31 remaining and Casey added the two-point conversion to make the final 39-29.

Somerset, now 2-1, will host Prescott 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23.