St. Croix Central, Somerset football ready to start Division 4 playoffs
The first Middle Border Conference championship season for the St. Croix Central football team was capped Friday when the Panthers defeated Somerset 42-24 on the Panthers' home turf.
It is quite possible that these two teams could be meeting again in another week. Central is the top seed in the Division 4 regional tournament bracket and Somerset is the fourth seed in the bracket. Central hosts Adams-Friendship this Friday in the opening round of playoff action. Adams-Friendship is the eighth seed after compiling a 4-5 record this season. Somerset is the fourth seed in the bracket. The Spartans will host Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau this Friday. G-E-T has a 6-3 record after placing second in the Coulee Conference with a 4-1 record. If Central and Somerset both win Friday, they would meet in the second round of the playoff bracket.
There were times in last Friday's game that Central and Somerset were locked in a close, heated battle. The score was still 14-6 with less than a minute remaining in the first half. Central quarterback Austin Kopacz completely fooled the Somerset defense when he faked a handoff, allowing him to score on a four-yard run with 34 seconds left in the half, raising Central's lead to 21-6.
Central delivered the knockout quickly in the third quarter. After Central snuffed out Somerset's first possession of the half, Kopacz returned a Spartan punt 78 yards for a score, increasing the lead to 28-6. Somerset faced fourth-and-1 on its next possession, but the Spartans were denied the first down on an excellent tackle by Central linebacker Keagen Berg.
That left the Panthers with 35 yards to cover. The Panthers scored on fourth down, on a wild play where Kopacz scrambled away from several Spartans, before finding halfback Mike Steinmetz for a pass. Steinmetz charged down the sideline for an 18-yard score and the lead was suddenly 35-6.
Berg added a 26-yard run in the final minute of the third quarter, but that's when Somerset started to fight back. Ryan Kelly returned the ensuing kickoff 81 yards for a touchdown.
"In the fourth quarter we forced them to keep playing," Somerset coach Bruce Larson said.
The Spartans added two scores in the fourth quarter, one on an 85-yard sprint by halfback Roy Hale.
Larson said the first down difference, won by Central 18-8, was the telling tale in the game.
"That sums it up. They drove the ball and we hit big plays. They possessed the ball and that's what we needed to do," he said.
The possession offense resulted in Central having three players rush for more than 100 yards in the game. Berg finished with 107 yards, fullback Ryan Larson with 104 and Kopacz with 101.
One of the highlights of the game was the hellacious pad-popping hits that Larson and Somerset's Jack Peterson delivered against each other. They mirrored each other as the fullback and inside linebacker and the two senior standouts were playing at peak intensity. Central coach Tony DiSalvo was impressed with the respect they showed for each other.
"They helped each other up after every hit, slapped each other on the back, then went back and did it again," DiSalvo said.
The Panthers were able to bottle up Peterson, limiting him to 41 yards. Somerset held Larson in check too, other than one play early in the second quarter. On third-and-short the Panthers sent Larson up the middle. A Somerset linebacker met him in the hole, but Larson kept his legs driving and he broke through the tackle before reinforcements could arrive. Larson broke away for the score that upped Central's lead to 14-0.
While Larson and Kopacz made the game-breaking plays for the Panthers, Berg and the offensive line were instrumental in maintaining Central's drives. While Kopacz and Larson had a combined 20 carries, Berg's ability to run inside and outside was well utilized, finishing with 23 carries for 107 yards. DiSalvo said with the field being so slick and difficult to cut on, Berg's reliability in picking up yardage was a key weapon for the Panthers.