By Al Zipsie

The NUIC will have at least one team in the IHSA State football championship game for the 15th time in the last 16 years. 

This Saturday Forreston (10-2) at Lena-Winslow (11-1) will meet in the 1A semifinal. The winner represents the tough NUIC in the state title game.

And another NUIC team, Eastland/Pearl City is one win away from being in the 2A title game. They will host Gibson City in a battle of 12-0 unbeatens in the semifinal. E/PC knocked off previously unbeaten Orion 30-3 on the road Saturday. Gibson City eliminated Sterling Newman 27-12.

In the quarterfinals it wasn't really a surprise that Lena-Winslow beat Aurora Christian, but how as they dominated 57-14. Forreston (10-2) got by NUIC Northwest foe Dakota 22-20. It was the second straight week the Cardinals won a game 22-20 and held on the other team's two-point conversion for the win. Last week they did it in overtime over Milledgeville and this week held off the Indians by the identical score in regulation. Dakota had a chance to force overtime but a two-point conversion pass failed and the Cardinals held on.

Lena-Winslow, whose only loss was to E/PC, now faces a rematch with Forreston. They beat the Cardinals 36-16 back in week two. It's the second straight year the teams battle in the semifinal. Last it was Lena-Winslow who beat Forreston, ending the Cardinals chance at a second straight state title. This year the Cardinals are looking for revenge and a chance to stop the Panthers from a chance at defending their title. As good as the NUIC is in football, they have yet to have one school win two straight state championships.

Gibson City knocked out E/PC 50-14 in the first round last year in Randy Asche's final year as Wildcatz head coach. Coming over from Warren, Jared McNutt has now won all 12 outings with E/PC as the new head coach. And only game away since 2014 when Asche's team won the 2A state title.

E/PC in its big win over Orion had the Kempel twins, Jayden and Jarod combine for over 200 yards rushing and three touchdowns. The Wildcatz defense has become stingy and put up another impressive defensive showing holding Orion to 57 yards rushing and forcing four turnovers. Leading 13-0 in the third quarter Jayden took a screen pass from quarterback Braden Smargiassi 77 yards to the house and they never looked back.

"The Kempel boys could not be stopped," said McNutt. "It goes to show you, people have doubted us a lot, but we're showing that our guys can play at a higher level."

In Lena-Winslow's statement win over AC, the line on both the offensive and defensive side set the way. Bruising running backs took control of the game. Leading only 22-14 Ormiston and then Isaiah Bruce took turns carrying the ball seven straight times ending each of the drives with touchdowns. Ormiston 44 yards with a powerful 17 yard TD including a stiff arm and carrying the tackler into the end zone. Then Bruce 56 yards who capped his off with a four-yard TD run. The Panthers reeled off 35 unanswered points on the way to the rout.

Forreston hosted Dakota with the winner earning the right to meet Lena-Winslow in the 1A semifinal. The quarterfinal battle was nothing like Forreston's win 40-20 earlier in the season. Dakota had looked good in the playoffs including knocking off previously unbeaten Ottawa Marquette in the second round. They got that win by preventing an OM two-point conversion to force overtime. This time it came down to their own two-point conversion to try and tie the game and force overtime and a chance for the win. With 1:30 left in the game the Indians quarterback Josh Clark connected with Carter Drake cutting the lead to 22-20. Then they went for the tie and two-point conversion. Clark tried a corner fade to the 6 foot 3 Drake, but he caught the ball out of bounds and Dakota's season ended at 8-4.

Forreston usually a run-dominated team scored twice on passes to lead 16-7 at halftime. Bailey Cullor hit Evan Kelsey for a 55-yard touchdown and then Cailean Davids outran the Indians secondary for a 52 yard TD pass. The second of two costly Dakota turnovers set up an 83-yard drive which Dom Christensen scampered 55 yards for a score to open up a Cardinals 22-7 lead.

However, Dakota would show character bouncing back. With a third down and 25 in the third quarter Clark (who clicked on all eight passes in the second half for 142 yards) first connected with Wyatt Rockey for twenty yards. Then Clark found Jacob Kleckner for a fourth down 14 yard TD strike cutting the lead to 22-14 with 7:22 left in the game.

Dakota's defense then held Forreston and had a chance to tie the game. Clark hit Cade Kloster with a sideline catch to set up the Clark TD pass to Drake. Then the duo tried again on the failed conversion pass. Both teams scored three touchdowns, but the conversions made the difference. Forreston converted two of three two-pointers, while Dakota had the two PAT kicks and then the failed two pointers for the tie.

It was the first time Dakota has lost in a quarterfinal game. They won their first four in 1999, then on the way to state titles in 2005, 2007 and 2011.

Also from the Stateline Byron is in the 3A semifinal. It's a chance to have teams from the Stateline in three straight championship games in 1A, 2A, and 3A.

Stateline Sports Hub.  NUIC Rankings.

  1. Eastland/Pearl City 12-0
  2. Lena-Winslow 11-1
  3. Forreston 10-2
  4. Milledgeville 10-1
  5. Dakota 8-4
  6. Stockton 7-3
  7. Orangeville 5-5
  8. Polo 5-5
  9. Aquin 4-5
  10. River Ridge 4-5

Galena's volleyball team from the NUIC finished as the state runner-up Saturday. For an update on all-time NUIC sports state hardware go to Facebook. NUIC Sports for the list. Some football hardware will be added in the next few weeks.