The NUIC Northwest division has become known around the state as the toughest Class 1A/2A division in the toughest conference in the state. And when the division wins 6 state titles over the last 7 seasons, how could one argue with that. Forreston and EPC have been at the forefront of this conference over the past 6 seasons, as both schools have won multiple conference titles, and they have combined to win 3 state titles in the past 3 seasons, with EPC winning Class 2A in 2014 and Forreston winning Class 1A in 2014 and 2016. The opportunity to be at the top of the conference at season's end was on the line as the 5th ranked EPC Wildcatz played host to the defending state champ and #3 ranked Forreston Cardinals in this rivalry game.
This game started off fast, as the Cards struck first when AJ Christensen busted down the sideline and tiptoed his way to the end zone on a 40 yard run to put Forreston in front 6-0 just short of 6 minutes into the game. However, the Catz would answer just over 2 minutes later as Jayden Kempel burst free from 47 yards out, notting the score at 6 with 3:59 left in the 1st quarter.
On Forreston's next possession things didn't go right, as they fumbled the ball and EPC recovered. They quickly converted the Forreston mishap into a 33 yard TD with a pass from Braden Smargiassi to Lucas Peterson to take the lead 12-6 with 2:19 still to play in the 1st quarter.
Forreston would respond quickly with a drive that watched Christensen get to the end zone again, this time on a 7 yard run, and after a successful 2 point try, Forreston jumped back into the lead 14-12 with 11:53 to play in the 2nd quarter.
EPC would mount another drive, and would reach the Forreston 7 yard line, but after two penalties set them back 10 yards, they would turn the ball over on downs. But the defense would force the Cards to punt, and on their next drive they made it pay as Jayden Kempel once again found the end zone from 6 yards out to put the Catz back in front 18-14 with 1:32 left in the half.
Forreston would get the ball and quickly drive into EPC territory, but the defense stiffened and Forreston faced a 4th and 3 at the EPC 30 yard line with 20 seconds left until halftime. Coach Diduch pulled into his bag and dug out a play call that has become all too familiar lately for the Cardinals. Forreston QB Hunter Daws took the snap and dropped back to find a wide open Sam Barkalow running down the field all alone as they connected for a 30 yard TD pass to push the Cardinals back on top 22-18 going into halftime.
As much fun as the first half was, the 2nd half proved to be the slugfest that was greatly anticipated. Forreston came out in the second half and drove the ball on a 15 play drive into EPC territory, but stalled. With the Wildcatz looking down the entire field, and trailing late in the 3rd quarter, Smargiassi dropped back to pass, and Barkalow came through on the defensive side of the ball, chasing Smargiassi down for a 10 yard sack pushing the Catz into the shadows of their own end zone. Three plays later, EPC was forced to punt, and Joe Bowers rushed through the line to block the punt off his helmet as teammate Hunter Rogers recovered the fumble in the end zone to push the Forreston lead to 30-18, and that was all the Cards needed to secure the victory. EPC would drive into Forreston territory early in the 4th quarter and enter the red zone, but a 4th down pass play was swatted away by Cade Kuelling.
This game was the first true test for EPC on the season, and they will need to rebound quickly as they host the #1 ranked Lena-Winslow next week in what will be another great NUIC Northwest battle between the Route 72 rivals. EPC will put its 24-0 record at Pearl City on the line against the Panthers, where their last loss in Pearl City came in 2006 to Lena-Winslow.
Forreston has already played the #1 ranked Panthers, losing 28-14 back in week 2, and will get set to host another state ranked team in the #11 ranked Aquin Bulldogs next week. This will be the 4th straight game of state ranked opponents for Forreston, and they still have a date with a feisty West Carroll team coming up in week 8.
Forreston (3-1) vs Aquin (4-0) | EPC (3-1) vs Le-Win (4-0)