How defense fueled high-scoring Lena-Winslow's run to another IHSA football title
CHAMPAIGN — Lena-Winslow's offense was dangerous at every corner this season.
The Panthers set the all-time NUIC single-season scoring record early in the fourth quarter of their 30-8 IHSA Class 1A championship game victory on Friday and fell just 15 points short of the 1A single-season scoring record with 699 total.
But as Le-Win struggled to gain momentum early in the title game against Camp Point Central, it was their defense that turned the game around — and eventually put the first-place trophy back in their hands.
"When it was crunch time," Le-Win's 26th-year coach Ric Arand said, "the defense really set the tone."
Defense has always been a stalwart to the Le-Win football dynasty. It's just that the Panthers' offense is usually so impressive that it overshadows the other side of the ball. That was the case much of this year, too.
Le-Win had the rare feat of having three ballcarriers rush for over 1,000 yards this season: Gunar Lobdell (1,608 yards and 24 TDs); Gage Dunker (1,445 yards and 28 TDs) and Jake Zeal (1,074 yards and 14 TDs).
All three are key defenders for Le-Win as well, though, and they sure came through on the other side of the ball in the season finale.
"I couldn't be more proud of this defense. They had their backs against the wall several times, and we never gave in," said Le-Win assistant Kevin Milder, who came aboard the same year as Arand, and has been the defensive coordinator since the following season, 1998. "There was no quit in them today. The goal of what we do is just to keep them out of the end zone, and the guys just kept playing hard today. They never stopped."
Dunker turned it on and rushed for 120 yards and three touchdowns on offense, but his biggest play of the day may have been an interception to halt Central's deepest drive of the first half.
"We had to have that one," Dunker said.
Central used six plays to drive down to the Panthers' 33-yard-line late in the first quarter right after Le-Win took the first lead of the game. QB Nick Moore lofted a pass toward the end zone, but Dunker leaped and snatched it away.
"Defense wins championships, as we showed today," Jace Flynn said after compiling seven tackles and swarming to the ball all day from his linebacker position. "To go out like this, with our defense playing like this, I can't think of anything better."
Dunker's INT handed the momentum to Le-Win, which then flew down the field for Dunker's second TD run of the game and a 16-0 lead early in the second quarter.
"That was just a big moment for us," Dunker said.
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Neither team scored for another quarter-and-a-half, but it was Le-Win's defense that continued to clamp down. Central was 1-for-4 on fourth-down conversions, and 4-of-11 on third downs.
"We did put more emphasis on defense this year, for sure," said Zeal, a senior linebacker and running back who led the team with nine tackles and four tackles for a loss. "Last year we would always end with team offense and trying to end on a good note there. Not this year. We'd end with defense. We really focused on defense and trying to protect it."
Le-Win allowed 11.4 points per game on defense this season, giving up more than two touchdowns in any one game only twice. They came within 1:40 of pitching their third shutout of the year, but did hold their eighth opponent at a TD or less.
On Friday, they held Central to one late touchdown, 3.1 yards per carry on 38 rushes, and QB Moore was 3-for-6 for 49 yards passing, but he also threw that pick.
"This year we've really hit it on defense pretty hard. We always know our jobs," Flynn said, "and we knew what we had to do on defense to win this one."
Lobdell, who won the 8-man football state title last year with Orangeville before moving to Lena in the offseason, led the Panthers with 1,529 yards rushing with a 12.4 yards-per-carry average. He was the go-to back for the Panthers much of the season, and one of the offensive stars every week.
But he took even more pride in his defense; especially on Friday morning. He had six tackles, a pass defense, and a big hit on a sweep play around the outside that appeared to be open for some yards. It wasn't once Lobdell dove in and took out Ross Riley's legs after a 2-yard gain.
"I just love hitting people, so that's more fun than anything," Lobdell said. "And I'm not the only one that thinks that way."
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The whole team seemed to be focused on stopping Central's attack. And, right from the get-go, that's just what they did. Le-Win stymied a fake-punt attempt on Central's first possession of the game, then Dunker hauled in the big interception on the next drive.
And for Le-Win, that was the theme of the day: Defense.
"This was like a liquid defense," lineman Henry Engel said. "the way we just flowed together to the ball all day."
Jay Taft is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @JayTaft. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com. Jay has covered a wide variety of sports, from the Chicago Bears to youth sports, since the turn of the century at the Register Star, and for over 30 years all together.