Schuckman: Everything about state semifinal Saturday proved to be perfect


The family of Camp Point Central running back/defensive back Drew Paben celebrate the interception he returned 55 yards for a touchdown during Saturday's Class 1A state semifinal against Greenfield-Northwestern in Camp Point, Ill. | Matt Schuckman photo

CAMP POINT, Ill. — All roads led here.

From Mendon and Mount Sterling. From Pike and Calhoun counties. From near. From far. From in between.

They came to see the best football teams in the Western Illinois Valley Conference collide. They came out of the deer stands and the fields to be here on time. They arrived early and stood in line of a hundred or more people to ensure they had a seat in the grandstand or as close to the field as possible.

By the time Camp Point Central and Greenfield-Northwestern kicked off at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Class 1A state semifinal showdown, the entire field was ringed with fans stacked three or four deep in most sorts for what might be the biggest postseason crowd Central has ever seen.

It was the perfect setting with the perfect backdrop and perfect weather making it a perfect day.

Nowhere else had it this good.

Sure, bigger schools played in bigger stadiums with bigger crowds. But this was a high school game played the way high school football should be played — on a manicured grass field with the sun setting as the fourth quarter ticked away and fans close enough to the action to high-five players in the end zone.

Front and center were the next generation of Panthers, armed with coin- or rock-filled milk jugs and cowbells. Before warmups, those elementary school students tossed footballs back and forth, ran their own made-up routes and played their own games. Afterward, they sought out their heroes and asked for autographs.

Once again, it was perfect.

Central won 54-20, a dominating performance by a well-coached team with a well-executed gameplan right down the last detail. The Panthers were so efficient in every aspect — they opened the game on an 18-play, nine-minute touchdown drive, scored on a pick-six and recovered an onside kick and a bloop kick before the first quarter was through — they invoked the mercy rule with a running clock in the second half.

Their reward is a state championship rematch with Lena-Winslow at Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium at 10 a.m. Friday.

It will be the first of eight championship games played over a two-day span in a stadium that seats 13,391 fans. The facility has charm and all the luxuries you might expect — a video board, a booming sound system, state-of-the-art locker rooms.

What it lacks is intimacy, the kind everyone enjoyed Saturday where the noise created on every big moment reverberated in your bones. It’s the kind of atmosphere you dream of playing in and never forget, and the Panthers never will.

“Unbelievable atmosphere,” Central senior running back/linebacker Conner Griffin said.

It can’t be topped.

A trip to the state championship game is a dream come true, and the Panthers will soak in every moment of the week ahead. Walking from the locker room to the Hancock Stadium turf will be unforgettable. The Central fans will show up in droves, just like they did a year ago.

It just won’t have the same feel as Saturday.

Fans were as cozy as they were on edge and as excited as they were nervous. There were sideline reunions of high school classmates from years gone by. There were WIVC coaches and players hoping they could be in this situation someday. There were people everywhere you looked celebrating a game we all love.

Nothing could have been more perfect.

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