We have finally reached the point of the season where a champion will be crowned. This is State Championship Week, and on deck is the much anticipated game between Lena-Winslow and Tuscola. Both teams come into this game with 13-0 records and are ranked #1 and #2 respectively in the state. These two teams have only met once before, and that was the 2010 State Finals where Le-Win ran away with the game in a 47-14 trouncing of the Warriors. That was then, this is now, and both teams are much different then they were 7 years ago. For one program it is the systematic approach, running the same schemes, or variations of such, playing the smash mouth football that you are accustomed to seeing from them. The other program still runs the spread offense, but they now have different variations of run and pass, compared to 7 years ago when they were predominantly pass heavy. This will make for a very intriguing game come 10 am Friday morning at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
The Panther offense is predicated on the run, just as it has been since Coach Arand took the reigns in 1997. In that time he has only missed the playoffs once, in his second season in 1998, but since then he has chalked up 19 consecutive playoff appearances, and will be entering his 3rd State Championship Game in the last 8 seasons. Asked if he finds more exciting at this point in his career or if he still experiences a lot of nerves, Coach Arand replied, "Oh heck no, this is exciting, fun stuff. If you don’t get nerves then you shouldn’t be coaching anymore!! I am as excited about this game as about any game ever. You have to be for the kids…you have to make it as special for them as possible because it should be something that they never forget!" And how could one argue with his response, it is very exciting and at the same time nervous because you still want to put your best product on the field, and as he stated, make it the best opportunity and time for the kids involved.
The Warrior offense is based on the spread, and has been for quite some time. Tuscola Head Coach Andy Romine took over the Tuscola program at the start of the 2015 season, but don't think this is his first trip here either. Coach Romine has been on the Tuscola staff since 2008, so he has seen his share of state title games as well, with a win in 2009 and two runner-ups in 2010 and 2011. Coach Romine is very familiar with what Le-Win wants to do, as he was the defensive coordinator the last time these two teams met 7 years ago. This will be his first trip to the state title game as the head coach, and after failing to make it to state with very promising teams each of the past two seasons under his guidance, he has a lot to prove. The Warriors are still that spread team, but they run the ball about 60 percent of the time with 40 percent passing, unlike in the past where they were more 90 percent pass and 10 percent run. This will create some challenges for Le-Win, as Tuscola has the line size to match up with the Panthers. The strength of both of these teams comes from their linemen getting things started, and that centerpiece for Tuscola is 6'6" 289 pound senior Hunter Woodard, who has committed to play for Oklahoma State next fall. They also add another big tackle in Brayden VonLanken who is 6'2" 244 pounds, giving the Warriors two sound tackles to anchor their offensive line.
Lena-Winslow will counter their line with a few guys of their own, led by Michael Jones, Kenny Broge, and Ian Kuehl. When asked what team he feels best prepared him for what Tuscola runs, Coach Arand said West Carroll, but also stated it has been a long time since week 1, but he added this, "We will game plan like we do for anyone else and make adjustments. Tuscola doesn’t do anything that we haven’t seen this year. Obviously they do it well!"
It is a known fact that Lena-Winslow is very good at shutting down the run, but to shut down a multi-dimensional team like Tuscola can be challenging. Coach Arand answered what his team needs to do to have a chance at stopping Tuscola's offensive attack, "I am a firm believer in that you have to make teams one dimensional, so shutting down the run is our #1 priority, just as it is every week no matter who we play." This sounds familiar to what we saw and heard last year as Forreston took on St Teresa, and coincidentally you have the two same conferences squaring off for the second year in a row with a state title on the line, just two different teams who seem to run similar offenses as their counterparts from a year ago.
The Tuscola offense is led by QB Luke Sluder, who has put up impressive numbers on the season through the air and on the ground with a total of 2,991 yards and 38 total TD's. His primary target in the passing attack is 4 year starter Dalton Hoel, as he has hauled in 45 receptions for 1,010 yards and 17 TD's. Helping out the offense in the rushing attack is Andrew Erickson, as he has rushed the ball for 734 yards on 102 carries for 21 TD's. And while Sluder will have a couple other targets in the Warrior passing attack, Noah Pierce will be the other main focal point as he is their slot back, who will run the ball on their jet sweeps and catch balls on crossing routes.
Lena-Winslow is led by 2 time All-State running back Rahveon Valentine, who is just 11 yards shy of breaking 4,500 rushing yards for his career. On the season Valentine has ran for 2,025 yards and 25 TD on 203 attempts, which has produced 39 percent of the Panther offense. So while Tuscola will most likely key on Valentine to try and shut him down, the Panthers will attack that with Sean Ormiston (123, 961, 16 TD) and Gaige Schwartz (54, 725, 14 TD) coming out of the backfield as well. And while Le-Win does not throw the ball much, they do so rather effectively, as they are passing at a 71 percent completion rate, led by Ty Chrisman with 620 yards and 12 TD's and 0 INT. His leading target will be Isaiah Bruce, who has caught 13 passes for 325 yards and 8 TD.
This game will have a lot of interesting insights, whose line will win the battle, who will execute the best, who will be forced to do what they don't want to do and change the landscape of the game. Come Friday morning, as Huskie Stadium is filled out in black and gold on both sidelines, the stars will take the field, and the last team standing will be crowned the champions!
State Championship Predictions:
Massey: Le-Win 35 Tuscola 28
Calpreps: Le-Win 35 Tuscola 28
Behind the Numbers:
Lena-Winslow Panthers 13-0
Conference: NUIC Northwest
State Titles: 2010, 2013
Playoff Record: 34-21
Trips to Playoffs: 24
Points/Game For: 46.1
Points/Game Against: 11.2
How They Got Here
Round 1: Won 55-20 Stark County
Round 2: Won 49-16 Milledgeville
Round 3: Won 67-28 Aquin
Round 4: Won 12-8 Forreston
Tuscola Warriors 13-0
Conference: Central Illinois
State Titles: 2006, 2009
State Runner-Up: 2007, 2010, 2011
Trips to Playoffs: 28
Points/Game For: 44.8
Points/Game Against: 13.5
How They Got Here
Round 1: Won 56-0 Chester
Round 2: Won 50-13 Brown County
Round 3: Won 48-20 Carrollton
Round 4: Won 21-14 Athens