LENA, Ill. (WTVO/WQRF) — You have to BE the best, if you want to BEAT the best. Lena-Winslow knows that better than anyone. The Panthers are one of four teams left standing in the class 1A football playoffs, but their biggest test still lies ahead.
Le-Win is set for their 6th consecutive trip to the state semifinals.
“I’m not sure why it’s not seven, but I don’t know,” said head coach Ric Arand laughing. “You know, every week is so unique, and it’s the further you go, the more the pressure’s on, so more of the excitement I think.”
And as it should be, not many teams get to experience being one of the final four.
“You can definitely tell that our camaraderie is at 110% right now, which it needs to be when you make it to semifinal week because it’s do or die at this point,” said quarterback Jake Schumacher.
And the pressure is on as they stare down a 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday afternoon against Chicago Hope Academy.
“They’re athletic as all get out,” said Arand. “They’re big up front on both sides of the ball.”
The Eagles finished the regular season ranked 5th in the state. This is their first-ever appearance in the state semifinals, but they’ve got some athletes, and that starts with their all-state and dual-threat quarterback in Eddie Jenkins Jr.
“We’re working with our defensive line all the time about staying in their rush lanes, staying in their run lanes,” said Arand. “We are a gap-control team, so as long as everybody controls their own gap, we should be good.”
That leadership and direction on the line starts with all-state lineman Tanner Kempel.
“Our d-line really has to step up, stay low, keep him [Jenkins Jr.] in the box the whole time because if he gets running, it’s not good,” said Kempel.
Lena would like to give them a run too, but that means being able to get the ball in Gage Dunker’s hands. He’s rushed for 600 yards and 12 touchdowns so far in the postseason.
“Their line is probably the biggest we’ve seen so far,” said Schumacher. “All of their backs really, and defensive backs are quick as can be, so they’re going to give us a run for our money.”
So, what do Kempel and his boys on the o-line need to do?
“Block hard and block to the whistle, not really much more than that.”
Now obviously, these guys are focused on the week ahead, but the end goal always remains a trip back to the state finals.
“Everyone’s dream when they are a kid is to play in that state championship game and we’ve been lucky enough to do it these past couple of years,” said Schumacher. “But to finally be a senior and it’s your final year of football, you kind of just want to give it all you got.”
The Panthers are trying to become the first team to win four-straight state championships since Rochester won five from 2010-2014.
“Don’t expect to get back, but that’s what you work for,” said Arand. “Once you’ve had the taste of it, you just want to go back, and you want to go back all the time.”