Lena-Winslow powers into 1A state final with big second half

Panthers end Ridgeview-Lexington’s Cinderella run in semifinals

LENA – At halftime of Lena-Winslow’s Class 1A semifinal game Saturday afternoon with the Colfax Ridgeview-Lexington co-op, it was too close to call one of two interesting outcomes: The Panthers making a fourth trip to the state final turf in DeKalb, or the Mustangs making perhaps the biggest statement win in 1A history.

The Panthers held a slight edge at intermission, but it wasn’t until the second half that they played the kind of football they had been playing all year to punch their fifth ticket to the state finals.

Lena-Winslow wore down Ridgeview-Lexington throughout the second half and stepped up their running game to win 28-12 at the Panther Bowl.

Lead Panther running back Marey Roby was largely bottled up in the first half, but once he got his first double-digit rush in the third quarter, he found the end-arounds to be the path toward success. Roby, who had a career-high 254 yards a week ago in a quarterfinal win over Fulton, had just 37 yards on 12 carries before amassing 82 yards on his next 15 attempts with two rushing touchdowns to help put the game away after an 8-6 halftime lead.

“Once we started playing our football, we started putting points up on the board and our defense helps them like we had been doing all year,” Roby said. “That’s the type of football we play when we play together.”

Roby and quarterback Luke Benson are the only players on this year’s Panther team (11-2) that touched the ball during the 2019 state title game, and they had all of Saturday’s touchdowns. Benson opened up the scoring with a 1-yard scamper 63 seconds into the second quarter, and added a 7-yard keeper early in the fourth quarter to make it a three-score game.

Benson threw no passes, and his two touchdowns were the only times the play called for him to handle the ball. His first score capped a drive that began at the Mustangs’ 36 after a fourth-down combo sack from Ethan Fye and Gage Dunker with 3:09 left in the first quarter.

“We’ve done it once, but this one feels different,” Benson said on going back to state. “This one was more of a grind, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

The Mustangs’ only first-half score came on a drive after a bad snap from the Panthers resulted in a punt that landed at the Panthers’ 25-yard line. Carter Coffman capitalized on that miscue a few plays later with a 1-yard run with 17.6 seconds left until halftime. After a 2-point conversion pass went incomplete, the halftime edge was a slim two points.

“It frustrated us a little bit, but it also made us want it more,” Benson said. “In that second half, we came out hard and it benefited us. We had willpower to win. We wanted it more and more, and we got it.”

Roby broke free on his first big run of more than 10 yards with 6:31 to play in the third quarter and hit paydirt as his 20-yard touchdown gave the Panthers a 16-6 lead. The Mustangs’ next drive forced them into fourth-and-long situation, but a fake punt attempt by Coffman was stopped short of the first down as he ran right into Ross Stabenow in the middle of a scrum for the turnover with 4:30 to play in the third.

When the prize is greater, many teams are going to try a little trickery to reach it, and the Panthers were ready for it all week, Stabenow said.

“Coach, all week, was drilling that fake punt,” Stabenow said. “They did it in the playoffs quite a bit, so Coach kept drilling us to watch that fake punt and once they see that second line start running up, it’s game over from there.”

After denying the Mustangs (8-5) of a big momentum play, Benson’s 7-yard score made it 22-6. Thomas connected with Ben Peacock for a 38-yard touchdown completion in the fourth quarter to pull to within 10, but Roby’s second score countered it in the game’s final minute.

“Some of us just felt kind of like, they were in our heads today,” Thomas said. “We didn’t play the best we could, but I believe that most of us definitely left all that we could out on the field. For some of us, there’s always next year, but for some of us, there’s not, and that’s probably the saddest part of it all.”

Fye and Dunker each added a tackle for loss on defense, and combined to rush for 83 yards on 17 plays. Mustangs’ All-State running back Kaden Farrell was held to 70 yards on 12 plays by the Panther defense, with only one rush of more than 10 yards.

Ridgeview-Lexington ended its first playoff season since 2012, and the first with Illinois prep football hall of fame coach Hal Chiodo in charge.

After retiring in 2017 with 30 years of experience, Chiodo came back into the coaching ranks and took the Ridgeview-Lexington co-op one game short of where the former Lexington Minutemen program went under Chiodo’s charge in 1994. The Minutemen finished in second place that year, one of five runner-up finishes for the program, which ceased in 2016 with the co-op. One of their second-place campaigns, in 2009, came after beating Lena-Winslow in the semifinal round.

The co-op also would have been the first public school with four losses to compete in the state final since Staunton took second place in 2013, also at Huskie Stadium.

“It was amazing,” Thomas said of the playoff run. “The position that we were in was incredible with all of the teams that we faced, and it was a great opportunity, and I think next year we’ll come back and probably do the same thing.”

The Panthers, who made the semifinal round for the eighth time in 12 seasons, are unbeaten in four state final appearances and march on to familiar territory. They will face Carrollton in the 1A state finals at 10 a.m. Friday at Huskie Stadium on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Carrollton defeated Moweaqua Central A&M 28-14 also on Saturday to advance.

“Our focus always has been shutting down the run and making it one-dimensional,” Panthers coach Ric Arand said. “Our interior guys really did a great job shutting down their all-state running back.”