LENA, Ill. (WTVO/WQRF)–The Northwest Upstate Illini Conference is proving to be very strong this year with Du-Pec and Forreston again fielding elite teams, and Dakota surging rapidly. The two teams currently unbeaten in conference play though are Fulton and Lena-Winslow, and they will meet Friday night in Lena in our ‘Overtime’ Game of the Week.

The welcome mat is always out at Lena for visitors. It’s a friendly community, and it’s a football community. As the sign by the school reads, football is not an every Friday thing, it’s an everyday thing here.

The Panthers have won five state championships since 2010. They are currently 4-0 and ranked number one in the state in Class 1A, but in many respects they feel like their season is only now beginning, because they’ve had a soft early schedule that saw them defeat EPC, Galena and West Carroll by a combined score of 176-6.  Those games were all in the bag pretty much after the first quarter.

The Panthers will be the first to tell you, those blowout games are not fun.

“Last week at West Carroll, they’re just trying to get things going. I felt bad for their kids as much as anything,” said Le-Win head coach Ric Arand.

“We want to get some good reps out of it,” said Le-Win fullback/defensive lineman Gage Dunker. “When it’s 48-0, you don’t want to put the starters in the whole game. You only get a certain amount of reps. 

The one game the Panthers experienced some resistance in was against Dakota. The Panthers still won that game by 24 points. To help make up for the blowouts, Arand has pushed his guys in practices.

“The last few weeks we’ve been really tough on our kids in practice. We’ve got to get quality reps in at some point, so we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

The Panthers have upcoming games against Du-Pec and Forreston, but this week it’s all about 3-1 Fulton, a team that’s coming off a one-point, non-conference loss last weekend against Muskegon Central Catholic in Michigan. Fulton is versatile on offense. The Steamers will throw a lot of looks at the Panthers on both sides of the football.

“When they run the ball, they’re a lot like us,” said Arand. “A lot of misdirection, counter stuff. They’ll come right at you occasionally, but they’re going to go out of the shotgun and throw it a lot as well, and they love their screens.

“They run a lot of stuff which it’s kind of hard to tell what they’re running at some points. It may look like a run, but they do end up passing,” said Le-Win linebacker Jace Flynn.

“They have a lot of formations, they run a lot of plays,” said Dunker. “They’ve got a lot of fast kids, and they’re pretty physical.”

The Panthers defeated Fulton twice last year in the regular season and in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.

“In the playoff game they threw a double pass at us, threw a lateral to a flanker. We intercepted it, but the threat of those things is enough to give you sleepless nights for sure,” said Arand.

NOTE: Watch for highlights of the game Friday night live at 11 p.m. on ‘Overtime’ on Fox 39. The show is also rebroadcast Saturday nights on Fox 39 at 11 p.m. although that time could slide a bit depending on how long the college football game on Fox runs that night.