DEKALB, Ill. (AP) — Tyler Oakley called it the best he’s ever played defensively, and Lena-Winslow has a new state championship trophy largely because of it.
The senior scored three touchdowns — two on long fumble returns — and thwarted Tri-Valley’s last-ditch drive with an interception with 23 seconds to play, lifting the Panthers to a 28-21 victory Friday over the previously unbeaten Vikings in the Class 1A state championship at Northern Illinois University.
“I could never imagine in my wildest dreams — one but two [defensive touchdowns], and then I get that interception to seal it. By far, my best defensive game in my whole life,” said Oakley, who also gained 83 yards on 25 carries for Lena-Winslow (11-3).
Oakley’s two fumble returns — one covering 60 yards, the other 65 — for touchdowns staked the Panthers to a 14-7 first-quarter lead, though the Panthers ended up trailing Tri-Valley 21-14 at halftime.
Lena-Winslow rallied, closing to 21-20 on quarterback Ben Moest’s one-yard sneak on the Panthers’ first third-quarter possession. The extra point failed.
After Lena-Winslow recovered a Tri-Valley fumble on the ensuing possession, the Panthers went on to take the lead for good on a two-yard Oakley touchdown run followed by a two-point conversion.
Oakley’s interception in the closing seconds sealed the win.
“These guys did today what they did all year, and that’s battle,” Lena-Winslow coach Ric Arand said. “We’ve beat a couple good teams this year, but this one in Tri-Valley is by far the best team we’ve faced this year.”
Caleb Wilson led the Vikings (13-1) with 150 rushing yards on 20 carries and scored twice —touchdown runs of 3 and 36 yards — for the Vikings, who fumbled away the ball three times during the game.
“They made some great halftime adjustments,” Tri-Valley coach Josh Roop said of the Panthers. “You can’t beat a team like that and make mistakes like we did. However, it doesn’t take away how I feel about this team. I believe in this team. They’re champions.”