Tigers pounce on PanthersNorthwestern's next game is at 2 p.m. Saturday at Neillsville
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
Even before playing its first game this year, the Northwestern High School football team envisioned this situation.
“First we’re going to settle the conference,” said senior Kevin Derick in August. “Hopefully — or actually when — we get the conference, we’re going to go from there.”
In the regular season, the Tigers went undefeated to claim the Heart O’ North Conference title. Tuesday, Northwestern hosted the St. Croix Central Panthers in a level one playoff game at the Gordon L. Nelson Athletic Complex in Maple.
Jake Schiff, like each of the 16 seniors on this year’s team, had been waiting anxiously for his first chance to play in the postseason. When the Tigers were still preparing to start the year, he thought back to Northwestern’s recent struggles. This season, he said, the seniors were determined to see a different outcome.
“This is our last season,” Schiff said. “It’s what we’ve been waiting for every year since our freshman year.”
From 1991 to 2005, Northwestern only missed the playoffs once, in 2002. For the past three season, the Tigers have missed the playoffs.
On Tuesday, the Tigers returned to the playoffs forcefully, rolling by St. Croix Central 42-13.
The Panthers (5-4, 3-3) averaged 20.6 points of offense while giving up 13.2 points heading into Tuesday’s game.
The Tigers, meanwhile, averaged 45 points of offense and allowed about nine on defense during the regular season.
TJ Polkoski returned the opening kickoff to about the Tigers’ 36 yard line to start the game. On the first three plays, Northwestern handed off to Ryan Miesbauer to come up just short of the first down. On fourth and one, the Tigers went to junior TJ Polkoski who rolled forward for the first down.
On the next play, Kevin Derick took the handoff for the first time and carried it about 11 yards for another first down.
The Tigers then began showing jitters with two costly penalties, the second of which was an illegal blocking call that brought back what would have been another long run by Derick. A few botched plays later and Northwestern found itself near midfield with 18 yards to go on third down.
Northwestern’s situation began to look hopeless when a third penalty against the Tigers put the ball back another five yards, but Derick made up all but four yards with a strong run behind the blocking of fellow senior Donnie Hissa. Northwestern then got the Panthers to stumble into a false start to slip out of a tight situation with the first down.
From there, the Tigers’ power running game took over. Polkoski and Miesbauer ran up the middle to get a pair of first downs before Northwestern went back to Derick. The senior running back streaked around the left side and easily outpaced the Panthers’ defense for the first touchdown of the night with 4:37 left in the first quarter. Eray Meral’s kick gave NHS the 7-0 lead.
Heading into the game, Northwestern had expected the Panthers to pass the ball, so the Tigers came prepare to shut them down.
On the first play from scrimmage, the Tigers pressured Panther quarterback Kyle Cress and forced him to throw the ball away. After Cress got off a pass for the first down, Wes Snow and Miesbauer came up with the sack for NHS, and the Panthers’ next pass was almost picked off. At third and 13 St. Croix Central again tried to go deep but was forced to punt when the throw came up incomplete.
Kasey Leggate sparked the Tigers next drive when he broke away for a run of about 30 yard to get into Panther territory. On the next play, Derick went about 25 yards, and the first quarter ended with Northwestern nine yards from the end zone.
On the first play of the second quarter Derick followed Polkoski into the end zone to make the lead 14-0 for the Tigers. Northwestern then forced a turnover on St. Croix Central’s possession when Steve Perry tipped a Panthers pass and Polkoski grabbed the ball for the interception.
Miesbauer scored his first of four touchdowns with 9:21 left in the first half and then made it 28-0 with another touchdown with 2:40 left in the second quarter.
The Panthers made the game interesting to start the second half when Northwestern fumbled the ball. Stephan Wood picked up the fumble and returned it 26 yards for the Panthers’ first touchdown. With the extra kick, Northwestern’s lead was cut to 28-7.
St. Croix Central recovered another fumble on the Tigers’ next series when Brad Wahlen covered up the ball, but the Panthers were not able to score.
Leggate then helped put the Panthers’ threat away. He came up with the big gains for NHS in its next drive, breaking away and getting to the one yard line to set up Miesbauer to run the ball in the rest of the way on the next play. Meral again made the kick to give NHS a 35-7 lead with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter.
St. Croix Central would score in the fourth, but the Tigers kept in front for the 42-13 win. Charlie Clark caught a long pass to set up the Panthers’ score with 3:02 to play, and the Tigers’ Josh Zinmer recovered the ball on the Panthers’ onside kick attempt to give NHS the ball as the clock wound down.
Three Tigers finished with more than 100 yards rushing. Derick had 135 yards and two touchdowns, Leggate had 115 yards, and Miesbauer had 105 yards and four touchdowns.
TIGER TALES: Up next for the Tigers are the Neillsville Warriors at 2 p.m. Saturday in Neillsville. ... The Warriors (7-3) advanced with a 14-12 win over Baldwin-Woodville. ... Neillsville is located about an hour southeast of Eau Claire. ... Neillsville finished with a 5-3 record in the Cloverbelt Conference, which includes Colby, Fall Creek and Osseo-Fairchild.