Why slowing down helped carry this 5-4 Forreston team back to the state semifinals

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Forreston's McKeon Crase celebrates after beating Dakota on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Forreston High School in Forreston.

FORRESTON — For 27 years, Forreston had won at least three games in a row at one point during the season, according to veteran Freeport radio play-by-play man Don Werntz.

That seemed destined to end this season. Instead, Forreston has done it the hard way, with its three-game win streak all in the playoffs. The Cardinals advanced to the Class 1A state semifinals Saturday with a 20-8 victory over a Dakota team it had lost to in Week 4.

“To be able to continue a tradition we have had is one of the greatest feelings ever,” said senior fullback Johnny Kobler, who ran for 111 yards and two TDs on 22 carries to lead Forreston.

Forreston (8-4) now plays at No. 1-ranked Lena-Winslow (12-0). The two have met in the playoffs four of the past five years, with the winner going on to win state each time, twice by Forreston and twice by Le-Win.

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“If there is anyone that can beat Lena, we’ve been the one to do it the last 10 years,” Forreston coach Keynon Janicke said. “We’re going to try our best.”

Le-Win beat Forreston 28-14 in the season finale, the only team to come within three touchdowns of Le-Win.

And Forreston is a different team now than it was then. Different than it has been in a long time. With four starters out against Le-Win, the Cardinals slowed the game down. They have kept the game slower in the playoffs. Saturday, Dakota had the ball only twice until the final 70 seconds of the first half. And Kobler had three times as many carries as any other Cardinal.

“That’s absolutely out of character,” Janicke said. “We’re known for going no-huddle and giving six or seven guys the ball. But we have done a really good job of adapting and doing whatever we have to in order to win. We faced a lot of adversity with injuries so we made the decision to huddle up against Lena. The last month, we have huddled up. We had to adapt completely. It’s been part of the process. And we’re going to keep going with it until we can’t anymore.”

Forreston won state titles in 2014, 2016 and 2018, but had a total of three losses in those three seasons. The Cardinals have never gotten this far in school history after a 5-4 regular season.

“This semifinal comes as a surprise to some people, but we knew we could do it,” Janicke said.

“Our team has a lot of discipline,” quarterback Brock Smith said. “We stuck to what we knew and we believe in ourselves.”

Forreston's Kaleb Sanders celebrates against Dakota on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Forreston High School in Forreston.

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That meant rushing 39 times for 182 yards against Dakota (7-5). And not completing a single pass (it only tried one).

The Cardinals basically won the game on the first two drives of the second half. First, Kaleb Sanders picked up a bad pitch and returned the fumble 40 yards for a touchdown to give Forreston its first lead, 14-8.

“That kept everybody’s energy up and wouldn’t let us stop,” Sanders said. “Then we came back on defense and shut them down again.”

Well, not exactly. Dakota went on a 17-play drive immediately after Sanders’ scoop-and-score, but went nowhere once it reached the Forreston 9. Four plays didn’t gain a single yard and Forreston took over.

“I always think our best defense has to be inside the 10,” Sanders said. “We came out and stopped them.”

Later, Forreston ran more than six minutes off the clock and took a 20-8 lead when Kobler capped an 11-play drive to put the Cardinals ahead 20-8 with less than four minutes to play.

That basically ended the game for a Dakota team that was the first great NUIC power, winning three state titles between 2005 and 2011, but was only 2-7 last year and reached the quarterfinals for only the second time in 11 years.

“We really wanted to get our community back into it, get more kids out for the program and get it back to where we are supposed to be,” said Dakota quarterback Kaidyn Niedermeier, who didn’t throw much until late in windy, cold conditions, completing 5 of 12 passes for only 63 yards.

The entire conference has remained on top of Class 1A. All four NUIC Class 1A teams in the playoffs made up the entire final four in the northern half of the draw, with Le-Win rolling over Fulton on Saturday. This was the year the IHSA said it would seed the playoffs 1 through 32, not divide the playoffs in half between the north and south, but it changed its mind because of high gas prices and reverted to the old system.

Dakota's Adrian Arellano follows his blockers Thomas Bowman and Noah Wenzel on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Forreston High School in Forreston.

“The entire team thought we could have a state final against Lena,” Kobler said. “That would be amazing. When they switched it, it was, ‘Well, let’s just go beat Lena early.

“Even with as many injuries we had in Week 9, we held them to their lowest scoring game and their lowest rushing game. Now that we have some people coming back we can really take it to them.”

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And to win state, NUIC teams still have to go through other NUIC teams. Even though so many conference teams that peppered the Class 1A playoffs have left to play 8-man football, the league remains as dominant as ever in the playoffs.

“It seems at times our conference could be dissolving or dying,” Janicke said. “A bunch of teams that could have survived as 11-man decided not to, Orangeville, Polo, even East Dubuque. But we’re still playing tough football and we’re fine with that.”

Lena-Winslow 52, Fulton 14

Jake Zeal scored on two early rushing touchdowns to spot undefeated Le-Win to a 14-0 lead. Gunar Lobdell then scored from 47 and 47 yards out and Zeal scored on a 41-yard pass to give Le-Win a running clock in the middle of the third quarter against a Fulton team it beat 54-32 during the regular season. Fulton (9-3) was the NUIC runner-up, losing only to Le-Win in the conference.

Le-Win has won five state titles since 2011, including three of the last four. The Panthers have outscored teams by an average of 41 points, 632 to 136 in 12 games.

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.