FREEPORT — Lena-Winslow had a long first-down touchdown run taken away late in the first half by a holding penalty. Then, two plays later, the refs took the ball away, saying a 10-yard second-down run was actually fourth down.
“It was kind of crazy,” Forreston linebacker/running back Kaleb Sanders said. “We were confused and just wanted the ball.”
The refs admitted their mistake before the third quarter began. In the end, it didn’t matter. Undefeated Le-Win would lead by as many as 38 points and beat its greatest traditional rival 38-16 Saturday to return to the Class 1A state title game in search of its fourth state title in the last five playoff seasons.
Forreston (8-5) came in thinking it had a chance after giving Le-Win its toughest game four weeks ago.
“We were five guys down during the regular season,” Sanders said. “We could have stepped up more, like we did during the regular season, but we ended up not. But without Micah (Nelson), Alex (Ryia) and Kyler (Ganz) it was a struggle.”
Nelson and Ryia ranked 1-2 for Forreston in tackles before getting injured. Ganz ranks fifth. Without them, Le-Win averaged 8.8 yards per rush, running for 309 yards on 35 carries and never even bothering to try a pass.
Of course, the Panthers (13-0) may have run for 300 yards with no Forreston players missing.
“It really hurts not having those guys, but Lena is just a force,” Forreston coach Keynon Janicke said. “They are on a whole other level, a level where we are striving to be. But we weren’t physical enough.”
Le-Win strives to always be physical. When Forreston matched the Panthers at that on the opening drive, forcing a quick 3-and-out, all that did was seem to make Le-Win mad. The Panthers scored on their next three possessions without even getting to third down to take a 22-0 lead into halftime.
“We knew they were going to come out and try and punch us in the mouth,” said Gunar Lobdell, who ran for 82 yards and two TDs on 11 carries for Le-Win. “They forced us into a 3-and-out. We just had to bounce back and we did that.”
That opening punt was only Le-Win’s 10th punt of the entire season.
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“We play fast, play physical and play hard,” all-state two-way lineman Henry Engel said. “Eventually that will start working out for us.
“It was weird,” Engel said of punting on the fourth play of the game, “but then we got back from that. We got our feet under us. After that, we started rolling.”
Maisen Smith got Le-Win started by shoving a Forreston blocker into punter Sanders for a blocked punt on Forreston’s first possession. That gave Le-Win the ball at the Forreston 19. Gage Dunker scored on a 10-yard run two plays later. A Lobdell 11-yard run made it 14-0 and a Dunker 21-yard run made it 22-0.
Dunker, the younger brother of Iowa Hawkeyes backup red-shirt freshman right guard Gennings Dunker, ran 19 times for 212 yards and three touchdowns. He also had a game-high 14 tackles and the only sack in a game that had only two pass attempts (and no completions).
“I try to do as good as my brother,” Dunker said. “I try to beat him in everything. It doesn’t always happen. He’s about twice my size. But I try.
“My offensive line,” he added, “does all the dirty work. They deserve most of the glory.”
Le-Win will now play Camp Point Central (13-0) for the state title 10 a.m. Friday in Champaign. Camp Point Central routed undefeated Colfax Ridgeview-Lexington 44-8, but last year all eight state champions came from the northern half of the bracket. Camp Point Central has never won a state title and finished second just once, losing to Forreston 44-6 in 2018.
Le-Win and Forreston have combined to win eight of the last 11 Class 1A state titles. Even in defeat, Forreston enjoyed measuring itself against Le-Win, despite being held to 93 yards until it gained 111 yards in the waning moments against Le-Win’s backups.
“They are a great team,” Sanders said. “It’s a great rivalry. I enjoy playing them every single year. It’s one of the best games to look forward to.”
Le-Win feels the same way.
“We didn’t push them around,” Pecoraro said. “We scored a lot on them, but they are a physical team. They are probably the next-best team besides us. They really put up a fight. To beat them like this feels good.”
Matt Trowbridge has covered sports for the Rockford Register Star for over 30 years, after previous stints in North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and three years covering the Hawkeyes in Iowa City. Contact him at: email@example.com, @matttrowbridge; 815-987-1383.