Yes, Dom Christensen had a kickoff return for a touchdown, two key important pass receptions and what may have been a touchdown-saving interception, but Forreston’s 34-28 upset win over Lena-Winslow in the 1A semifinals was decided in the trenches.
That is where players like Derreck Vince, Kilar Huenefeld, Sawyer Wild, Travis Wilson, Derek DeVries and Mitchell Heinz manhandled a more celebrated unit from Le-Win.
“Those were three D-I guys we were going against,” said Heinz, who was named all-state last week. “I have no idea how we did it. I think we wanted it more.”
One of those standouts, Ian Kuehl, echoed what Heinz said.
“They came out with a lot more intensity than us and wanted it more,” Kuehl said.
That intensity was shown on the first drive of the game when Forreston took an 8-0 lead with only 1:16 gone. Evan Kelsey burst free for 32 yards in the first play from scrimmage and two plays later, it was Bailey Cullor finding Christensen for 32 more yards.
“We were going to throw on the third play no matter what,” Forreston coach Kyle Zick said.
Garett Badertscher, who was all over the field on both sides on ball, crashed over from 9 yards out and added the PAT run for the early lead.
“We came out ready. It was amazing how we played the whole game,” Badertscher said.
The Panthers took advantage of a Christensen fumble to close to within 8-6 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Sean Ormiston, after an 11-play 56-yard drive.
To show this was going to be different than the 29-0 deficit the Cardinals faced in the regular-season game, it was Forreston marching 67 yards on 13 plays to go up 14-6. Cullor went over from 1 yard out; but more importantly, the Cardinals’ offensive line had the vaunted front line of Le-Win reeling.
“In the first game, we hammered them on the line of scrimmage,” Le-Win coach Ric Arand said. “Forreston played physical against us this time. If you’re a small school and can do that, you’re going to win.”
Forreston was also aided by critical Panther errors, one of which occurred on the next play from scrimmage. Quarterback Cade Benson fumbled and Sawyer Wild recovered for Forreston at the Lena-Winslow 31-yard line.
Forreston couldn’t make a first down, but Cullor nailed a coffin-corner punt to the 2-yard line. On the next snap, Benson never got the ball on the snap and Davids recovered it on the 1-yard line.
Badertscher bulled over from his second TD and Forreston led 20-6 midway through the second quarter.
Just when it was looking good for the Cardinals, Le-Win began to exert its muscle.
With Ormiston cracking off long runs, the Panthers closed to within 20-12 seven plays later. Then Forreston had its worse possession of the game.
A fumble, a penalty, another fumble and incompletion made it fourth and long, deep in their own territory. A poorly executed punt attempt resulted in Kuehl making a one-handed block and Le-Win getting the ball at the 1-yard line.
Ormiston easily scored on the next play and the large crowd at Lena had to wonder if the game was shifting into the Panther’s favor.
After another failed Cardinal drive, Le-Win got the ball back 43 yards from the goal line with 1:30 left in the half. Advancing to the 6-yard line with five seconds left, Benson tried to find Isaiah Bruce in the open, but Christensen read the play and intercepted the pass.
The real game changer, though, was Cullor calmly connecting with Christensen on a diving 28-yard pass play – not too long after the Panthers were whistled for a roughing the passer penalty on fourth down.
That set up a first-and-goal at the 5 and even a 5-yard procedure penalty didn’t keep Badertscher from scoring his third TD to make it 26-0. He also gave the Cardinals a little breathing room with the PAT run.
Ormiston, who was one the stars of Le-Win’s semifinal win over Forreston in 2017, had plenty of more heroics in him, giving the Panthers a 28-28 tie with 4:26 left.
With Le-Win squibbing the kickoff up the middle, Christensen made a play that will be etched in Cardinals football lore for years to come and also prompting a teammate on the sidelines to mutter, ‘AJ who?’ in reference to his older brother and star of last year’s team.
“The first thing I thought about was ball security,” said Christensen, who picked the ball up at the 30-yard line. “Next, if I could get some yards, I would try to do that. Then, the field started to open up and it was 1-on-1 (with Parker Magee). I’m not a natural like my brother, but I was able to make a move on him.”
That move put Christensen on a path down the Le-Win sideline with only Jack Setterstrom having a shot at him. It was no match, as Christensen ran untouched the rest of the way for the 34-28 lead.
“Not in a million years did I think this was possible,” Christensen said.
Le-Win still had plenty of time to launch a game-winning drive, but Ormiston was stopped by a whole host of Cardinal defenders on a fourth-and-2.
“These kids played their heart out,” Zick said.
Forreston will play Camp Point Central at 10 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 23 for the 1A state championship at the University of Illinois.