When the lights turn on Friday night, it will be the start of the best 14 weeks in all of high school sports. And the biggest game to start the season will be in Savanna, where the West Carroll Thunder will host the pre-season #1 team in Class 1A, the defending state champion Lena-Winslow Panthers. Last year Le-Win came away from this game with a 34-20 win. Enter in 2018, Le-Win returns quite a bit of players from last year's team, while West Carroll brings up a lot of new faces. This game will be a big boost for both teams, however, as both will find out where they stand early on.
Each team will do different things, as West Carroll likes to spread it out, while Lena-Winslow wants to run traps, off tackle, and sweeps. Coach Arand told us about the difficulties of facing a team like West Carroll in week 1, "Probably our biggest concern facing WC in week 1 is that with WC being a spread team there is extra preparation especially in week 1. We have to prepare for tons of formation and motions that we do not typically see week in and week out." It is worth noting that West Carroll has been the team to prepare each of the last 2 state champions for what they would see once they reached the state finals.
West Carroll has shown how tough they can be the last couple years under Coach Leitzen, as each of their playoff losses under his time there have been to the eventual Class 2A state champion. When asked if this game is a little more special because they are facing Le-Win, or if it was just preparing for another game on the schedule, he replied, "It is special because it is week 1, it gives us a chance to show what growth we have had through the summer and the areas we have to improve on. This is a great time of year and our guys are really excited for this season." West Carroll returns a few players off last year's team, but have many holes to fill in important spots. This game will be a great measuring stick for Coach Leitzen and his Thunder.
The Thunder will have their hands full with Le-Win's rushing attack, as they feature Sean Ormiston returning from his 1000 yard plus campaign last year, plus add the likes of Keegan Gyland and maybe even shift Isaiah Bruce into the backfield, the Panther train will have many options once again. Coach Leitzen is very aware of what his team needs to do offensively to come away with the win Friday night, stating, "We need to convert when we have scoring chances, we didn't capitalize on two first half scoring chances last year and it put us in an early hole. You don't have that luxury against a team like Lena-Winslow. We will also need to play mistake free football and value the football." Turnovers and mistakes are detrimental when you are competing against a team that can make them pay quickly, and can put a game out of reach.
On the other hand, Lena-Winslow hasn't always started the year off as well as their hype when facing tough competition in week 1. You can look at the 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2016 seasons for proof, as each those seasons started with a loss for the Panthers, but ended in big playoff runs, including 2 state titles. Talking to Coach Arand, he said, "I have heard that a lot the past few years and I guess I would have to totally disagree with that statement ... we have run the table in the regular season in 2 out of the last 3 seasons, so if that is starting slow then I am all for it I guess." This is a great point as well, considering the last 4 seasons have ended with the quarterfinals, 2nd round, quarterfinals, and state champions for Le-Win. Winning 3 state titles in the last 8 seasons, he wants his team focused at being their best later in the season, stating, "We really stress to our kids that we don't want week 1 to be our best game of the year. We want to get better with each game and be playing our best football at the end of the season and into the playoffs. I think our kids truly believe that we will put ourselves in that position each year, and I think that is part of the reason that we compete in the playoffs year in and year out." Le-Win is searching for their area leading 20th consecutive playoff appearance.
Last year was a statement year for both teams, and while one has the target on their back, and the other is finding their identity, it is safe to say that both of these teams will be battling for the playoffs once again, and looking to prove their strength in the always tough NUIC Northwest. So let's get the lights turned on, and let the games begin. There will be plenty of fireworks this season, and this game will be one to watch. If you are not committed to a team, try getting down to Savanna, but be there early, you won't want to miss the Thunder taking the field through the motorcycle tunnel!