Quarterfinal Preview: Le-Win vs Fulton
The playoffs are always a bittersweet time frame. The tournament is arguably the best 5 weeks of the year, and generates a lot of excitement from Selection Saturday through the State Finals. On the other side it also abruptly closes chapters for the losing teams, as we watch the seniors play their final high school games, and more times than not the mood is somber with tears and hugs. Even watching the hand shake is tough, but the wins and losses are what drive us to compete in the first place.
As every year passes you remember the names of the stars that excited you, the names that seem to find their way into area folklore; Matt Wenger, Tyler Olsen, Matt Marini, Gavin Kaiser, Chad Goeke, Trey Griffin, Quinn Haas, Jake Apple, Logan Staver, Tyler Oakley, Robert DeVries, Walter Ollie, AJ Christensen, Rahveon Valentine, Garret Badertscher, Isaiah Bruce, Sean Ormiston, and Will Gustafson.
You remember the tough guys up front who paved the way without the notoriety, but without them you wouldn't see the success: Scott Nicholas, Jakob Awender, Cody Johnson, Phil Pieper, O'Shay Smith, Ethan Fiene, Ty Harmston, Gus Werhane, Aiden Carr, Austin Fischer, Cody Stewert, Michael Jones, Mitchell Heinz, Gennings Dunker, and Cade Geiken.
Every season we get to see a new group come in and electrify the fall air, but as the color turns and the leaves fall, we also see our stars leave their legacy behind. As you continue to move further away from those years you look back and realize how strong the rivalries were, how loyal the fans were, and how great it was to take the field on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.
For the NUIC, you see how great the competition was, and how great it has been all these years. There were slim years before multipliers and playoff expansion helped to level the playing field, but also allowed us the opportunity to see some strong teams with lesser records begin to make the playoffs and make some noise.
The 1989 Orangeville Broncos would never won state in the 70's or early 80's because they would never have qualified for the playoffs. The awesome 1999 season never happens if 6-3 teams Dakota and Milledgeville weren't benefactors of the expansion.
In 2001, we saw another expansion as playoff eligible teams playing in the IHSA grew to over 550. This allowed us to see some of our 5-4 teams make the playoffs, and generate upsets like Orangeville did in 2008 to stun the #1 ranked Dakota Indians. In 2013, we watched as Le-Win became the first NUIC team to win a state title at 6-3.
Today, as we embark on another chapter of NUIC football, you will see the past in the present, cheering on the players who will soon turn their own page and leave their stamp of legacy. And win or lose, the memories made will never be lost or forgotten.
Lena-Winslow enters this game making their 13th appearance to the quarterfinals since 2003. The Panthers are 6-6 in those contests, but are 6-3 since their 1st semifinal run in 2009. This also marks the 10th time that Lena-Winslow will meet a conference foe in the quarterfinals.
The 2002 season ended at the hands of IC Catholic, with a 27-8 loss in the Class 3A playoffs as IC Catholic went on to win their first state title in school history.
Lena-Winslow then had a chance for redemption against Dakota in 2005, after suffering a 44-8 loss in the regular season. However, the Indians would prevail, coming back from a 10-0 halftime deficit to win 20-10 as they went on to capture their 1st state title in school history.
The 2006 season saw the Panthers back in the quarterfinals, but there they met up with Morrison in a 28-7 loss.
The 2009 season answered some questions for Lena-Winslow, as they blew past East Dubuque to capture their 1st semifinal appearance.
In 2010, they would repeat the feat again, also against East Dubuque. That season would culminate with the Panthers nailing down their 1st state title in school history.
The 2012 and 2013 seasons would see them split with rival Stockton, as the 2013 win would help propel the Panthers to title number 2.
The 2014 season abruptly came to an end as they were looking to upend Galena, but a late fumble when trying to run out the clock led to a Pirates score and stopped the Panthers for their quest on back to back titles.
The 2016 season began some great back and forth games with Forreston, but the Cards demolished Le-Win 44-7 in the quarterfinals to move on to win state.
Each of the last 3 quarterfinals have seen lopsided scores, as the Panthers ran away from Aquin twice (67-28 in 2017 and 52-20 in 2019) and Aurora Christian (57-14 in 2018.)
This will be the 8th trip to the quarterfinals for Fulton in school history, with their last appearance coming in the Class 2A playoffs in 2016. You have to go back to 2001 to find the last run of quarterfinal appearances for the Steamers prior to that, and all 3 of those playoff runs ended against Stillman Valley, two of them coming in the semifinals when the Cardinals went on to win their first 2 state titles in back to back years.
The Steamers are 5-2 all-time in quarterfinal games, but this will be the first time they ever meet up with a conference opponent in the quarterfinal round.
For the Steamers, they haven't had much luck against NUIC teams in the playoffs. In fact, you have to go all the way back to their 1991 title run to find them beating an NUIC team, where they upended Galena in the 1st round, 26-20 in overtime.
The only other season they beat NUIC teams were in the first 2 rounds of their 1976 title run, East Dubuque 28-6 in round 1, and Forreston 20-14 in round 2.
In the past decade, the Steamers have lost to Forreston twice (2014 and 2017), Milledgeville in 2018, and Aquin in 2019. All four games were decisively won.
Their 1976 win over Forreston did come in the quarterfinals.
In 1978, they beat Paxton in the quarterfinals before bowing out to Stockton, as the Blackhawks went on to win their 1st state title.
In 1991, the Steamers were back in the quarterfinals with a 29-0 win over Richmond-Burton.
They returned to the quarterfinals in 1999, where they beat Sciota Northwestern 34-7, and went back again the next year in 2000, where they won 31-14 over Walther Lutheran.
The 2001 season would see the Steamers in the quarterfinals again, but they would bow out to Stillman Valley for the 3rd straight year, 14-0.
The 2016 season saw Coach Lower and his crew beat Rockridge for the 2nd time that season to move them into the quarterfinals, but a 40-21 loss to Annawan-Wethersfield ended their season.
This game will have a lot of hype behind it, as Lena-Winslow and Fulton are arguably the 2 best teams remaining in Class 1A. While another quarterfinal game today between Carrollton and Athens boasts the Final AP number 1 and 2 teams, the Freeman ratings actually have the Panthers and Steamers rated number 1 and 2 ahead of Carrollton and Athens.
The Panthers controlled all facets in their 1st meeting, winning 54-7, but as history has shown us, the second match up usually brings us a better game as both teams fight for their chance to move on. Lena-Winslow is still the odds on favorite to win this game, but don't be surprised if Fulton has some tricks up their sleeve to try to mitigate the rushing attack of the Panthers and make this game more of a challenge.
Come this afternoon at the Le-Win Athletic Bowl, one team will move on to capture our hearts further, while another will be standing behind, as a season will come to an end. The fans will stand proud, but the sadness of the final game will be hard. It will soon be relieved by the memories that were made this fall, and will carry on for a lifetime.
The other side will celebrate in joy and jubilation, building anticipation for what will hopefully continue to be a state championship run. And the players that play today will etch their place in history as the aforementioned names above, and become legends in a powerhouse conference. It will be a bittersweet day, but a day that will be remembered forever.