Football: Panthers ready for last stand against MBC rival Somerset
Due to a WIAA rule, the top-seeded Ellsworth Panthers had to play a road game last week, taking on Black River Falls in a Division 4 playoff game.
It was not a well-received notion that the Panthers would be giving up a home game, against one of the toughest opponents of the season, in just the second game of the playoffs.
But Ellsworth responded by putting up big offensive numbers in a 38-33 victory, meaning the Panthers will return home Friday to take on Middle Border Conference rival and defending state champion Somerset in the Division 4 semifinals.
“I think there was a little more incentive there for us,” said Ellsworth head coach Clair Austin of the Panthers’ losing a home playoff game. “Black River Falls was probably one of our tougher opponents on the year to this state. Due, in fact, that they were a good football team. They outweighed us by 100 lbs. a man on the offensive line, and we battled as best we could and we persevered. That’s the title of this team this year. We’ve overcome, we’ve made a difference in everything we’ve done this year. It’s just working. Everything’s clicking.”
And when the Spartans comes to Ellsworth Friday, they will not only have to deal with a team playing at a high level, they will see a squad that plays even better at its own field.
“It’s huge,” Austin said. “That, I think, is part of the incentive of our win is the kids are really excited, we get to come home and play, and hopefully we can get it rolling at home. I know we’ve played really well at home, and that’s what you have to do. You want to defend your territory.”
The Panthers know that they can handle Somerset, as evidenced by a 27-8 win over Sept. 20, but these are not the same two teams that met a month and-a-half ago.
Ellsworth started the season 5-0, including the win over Somerset. But scoring had started to drop, culminating with a 17-14 victory over Prescott in the final regular season game. That led Austin to make a change in his coaching staff.
“Well, we switched offensive coordinators at the end of the season, and it’s made a big difference,” Austin said.
The Panthers have responded with 89 points in two games, at least 25 points more than any other similar stretch this season. If that continues Friday, the Panthers, who allowed 227 total yards to the Spartans in the first game, should be in good shape.
Of course, the Spartans could come out with different tactics to try and top the eight points they scored in September.
“They might. But at the same time, they’ve had to have been practicing for quite a while,” Austin said. “Like I said, we can only handle what we can handle. We’re going to do the best we can, try to match up the best we can. But, again, we’re confident going in, just as they’re confident going in.
“To me, it’s just going to be a great football game.”
And it should be a game that features some great play from the Panthers. Emery Whalen completed 8 of 14 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown in the first matchup, while Brandon Vandermarliere added 99 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. And Brett Freier had a spectacular game defensively, totaling eight tackles, four of which were sacks, while helping hold Adam Marty to 3 of 7 passing for 48 yards.
But Austin knows that in the seven weeks between the two games, and with both teams coming off two impressive playoff performances, a replay of game one will be highly unlikely.
“They’ve gotten better just like we’ve gotten better,” Austin said. “It’s going to come down to patience and turnovers. And picking your spots, by both teams, Friday night.”