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Tigers win coin flip, then trip to St. Croix Central

Three teams officially share the Heart O' North Conference football title this season, but for the WIAA playoffs only one champion can be named. This year's co-champions -- Northwestern, Hayward and Chetek-Weyerhaeuser -- ended the regular season...

Three teams officially share the Heart O’ North Conference football title this season, but for the WIAA playoffs only one champion can be named.

This year’s co-champions - Northwestern, Hayward and Chetek-Weyerhaeuser - ended the regular season so close statistically that the final standings were determined by the flip of a coin.

Northwestern (7-2, 6-1) won the coin toss to be named the conference champion, but the designation did the team little good at its seeding meeting Saturday.

The Tigers were awarded the No. 5 seed in their region and travel to St. Croix Central (6-3, 4-3) today to open the Division 4 playoffs.

“The coaches at the seeding meetings all believe that their conference offers the best level of competition and work hard to sell that point to everyone in the room,” said David Crail, Northwestern head coach.

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The Tigers had to make their case among a very strong field of teams that included three conference champions.

Middle Border Conference champion Osceola (9-0, 7-0) earned the No. 1 seed, and Coulee Conference champion Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau (8-1, 5-0) earned the No. 2 seed. The remaining two homes games went to West Salem (7-2, 5-2) and St. Croix Central.

“Ultimately, if your team’s body of work over the course of the season garners the room’s respect, you’ll get it,” Crail said. “Until then, we will control what we can control and be ready to play wherever the Middle Border coaches send us.”

Three of the four Middle Border Conference teams to qualify for the playoffs landed in Division 4 this year.

The HON’s four playoff teams were scattered over four divisions.

Besides Northwestern in Division 4, Hayward is in Division 3, Bloomer is in Division 5 and Chetek-Weyerhaeuser is in Division 6.

Hayward and Chetek both host home games today. Hayward (8-1, 6-1) is a No. 4 seed and Chetek (8-1, 6-1) is a No. 3 seed.

The last time Northwestern played SCC was in the opening round of the 2009 playoffs, when the Tigers won 42-13 in Maple.

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The two teams also shared a connection last season. Northwestern fell to eventual state champion Osceola in the second round, while SCC fell to the Chieftains in the third round.

The winner of tonight’s game at St. Croix Central will likely play Osceola in the second round. The Chieftains, one of only three undefeated teams in Division 4, host Altoona (5-4, 5-3) today.

St. Croix Central finished third in the Middle Border Conference behind Osceola and New Richmond. The Panthers averaged 29.7 points per game and gave up 14.7 points per game.

“SCC is a very talented football team,” Crail said. “They execute well offensively and force defenses to be very disciplined. Their offense will take advantage of any defensive breakdowns.”

The Panthers are led by their running game. SCC averages 313.8 yards rushing and 69.5 yards passing per game.

Ryan Larson leads the Panthers with 1,010 yards rushing on 130 attempts (7.8 yards per carry) and has 10 rushing touchdowns. He is followed by halfback Mike Steinmetz with 526 yards in eight games. Quarterback Collin Nelson had 430 yards in nine games.

Cole Refsnider and Alec Fischer can also contribute on the ground and have combined for eight rushing TDs.

The Panthers’ passing game has accounted for less than a fifth of their scoring this season.

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Nelson has competed 14-of-41 passes for 362 yards and seven TDs with four interceptions.

On defense, SCC has not allowed a team to score more than 26 points this season. The Panthers held Osceola to 21 points in a losing effort and notched shutouts against Amery and Mondovi. Northwestern gave up 47 points in its loss to Osceola.

“Defensively they have good size up front and their linebackers are athletic,” Crail said. “I am anticipating a physical football game with an outcome decided on fundamental, disciplined play.”

TIGER TALES: SCC is the fourth smallest school in Division 4 with an enrollment of 406. Northwestern, with an enrollment of 441, is seven places up the list. The largest school in Division 4 school this year is Xavier, with an enrollment of 571. … In their 22 playoff appearances, the Tigers have only lost in the first round five times. Northwestern has an overall playoff record of 31-21. … Carter Spangenberg enters today’s game with 871 yards rushing, while Reagan Ruffi has 624 yards. Jared Anttila has 492 yards passing with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Tyler Little leads all Tiger receivers with 299 yards and seven touchdowns. ... SCC is in Hammond, Wis.

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