Forreston wasn’t supposed to win state football titles in 2016 and 2018.
"Growing up, we were never the good class," recalled Garret Badertscher, a star fullback and linebacker on that 2018 team. "It was always the 2017 class. They were the special class that won everything, from football to basketball to baseball. And that 2016 team, when they were in eighth grade and we were in sixth grade and looked up to them, I don’t think they won a game."
That 2017-18 class was like Forreston’s storied 2014-15 senior class that led the Cardinals to their first Class 1A football title, reached the state basketball semifinals and fielded its best baseball team, one that was eliminated in the sectional finals by eventual 2A state champion Rockford Christian.
And the 2017-18 seniors were most of the stars on Forreston’s only undefeated team in 2016. But it was that unheralded class a year behind them that played the Cardinals’ greatest game — and made perhaps the loudest statement yet about just how much the NUIC towers over the rest of the state in Class 1A football.
Forreston’s 34-28 upset of No. 1-ranked Lena-Winslow, which kept the Panthers from winning three consecutive state titles, ranks as our No. 8 greatest football game of the past 75 years and capped a three-week string of classic games against NUIC rivals. First the Cardinals slipped past Milledgeville 22-20 in overtime. Then they edged Dakota by the same 22-20 score.
They won their other two playoff games by a combined 86 points that year, including a 44-6 state title rout for a conference that has won eight of the last 10 Class 1A state titles.
"Those three weeks are something I will never forget, something most of us will never forget," said Mitchell Heinz, a star two-way lineman. "That says how great the conference is. A lot of people thought we overlooked Milledgeville, but Milledgeville was undefeated until they played us. Their fight in the second half was remarkable."
Those games left Forreston ready to fight a Le-Win team led by three players who have signed with Iowa in the Big Ten — Isaiah Bruce, Gennings Dunker and Sean Ormiston) — plus Ian Kuehl, who signed with NCAA Division II McKendree. A year later, that Le-Win team staked a claim to being the greatest Class 1A team in state history, going unbeaten and winning 13 of its 14 games by at least 30 points. And earlier in 2018, the Panthers had routed Forreston 36-16, leading 29-0 at halftime when they held the Cardinals to minus-3 yards rushing.
"We were destroyed," Badertscher said. "But after we got stomped on, we got motivated. We wanted it more. That first game, we had a young offensive line, with only one returning starter (Heinz). They had never seen a Lena team until that first game. That prepared them for the second meeting. And we had so many of those nail-biter games before we played Lena that we didn’t have jitters."
"Lena blinked," Heinz said, "because we had been in two close games before Lena. That helped us. When it was close, we didn’t blink."
The rematch was close from the start. Forreston took an 8-0 lead in the first 76 seconds on a slippery field. Evan Kelsey ran 32 yards on the game’s first play. Bailey Cullor threw 32 yards to Dom Christensen on the third play. That set up Badertscher’s 9-yard TD run. It also established a theme for the game: Big plays galore.
"It was definitely a game of big plays," Lena-Winslow coach Ric Arand said. "A lot of times that happens on a less-than-great field."
Forreston led by as much as 20-6 after recovering a Le-Win fumble at the Panthers’ own 1-yard line.
Le-Win quickly closed to within 20-12, led by the punishing running of Ormiston, the NUIC’s all-time leading rusher, who plowed his way to 161 yards on 37 carries. Kuehl then blocked a punt deep in Forreston territory, setting up Le-Win for its own 1-yard TD drive to tie the game at 20.
Still in the first half, Le-Win reached the Forreston 6 with five seconds left, but Christensen intercepted a pass to keep the score tied.
The scoring slowed in the second half, but a Badertscher 3-yard run on fourth-and-2 at midfield and Cullor’s 28-yard pass to a diving Christensen set up Badertscher’s third TD for a 28-20 lead. Le-Win punted on its first drive of the fourth quarter after Badertscher nailed Bruce for an 8-yard loss. Bruce, who averaged over 10 yards a carry for his career, was held to 21 yards rushing by Forreston.
Ormiston’s fourth TD tied it at 28-28 with 4:26 left.
And then Christensen returned a squibbed kickoff 70 yards for the winning TD. Forreston defenders swarmed Ormiston on Le-Win’s final fourth-and-2 try to end the game.
Christensen had played his entire career in the shadows of his older brother, AJ, the biggest of all Forreston stars on their 2016 and 2017 teams.
"AJ is maybe the best football player to ever come through Forreston," said Heinz, an All-State lineman.
But few Forreston players have ever made as many big plays as Dom Christensen did in this game. The 32-yard pass reception on the Cardinals’ third play of the game. An interception to keep the game tied at halftime. A 28-yard diving catch to help Forreston take a 28-20 lead. And the game-winning kickoff return in the final five minutes.
"That felt like a huge turning point in my life," Christensen said. "I felt I wasn’t really a good athlete and I lived in my brother’s shadow. To be part of a team that could do something so great, it felt like everything to me."
And it showed the Cardinals they could do anything — even without a star-studded roster.
"After we lost two games, we told ourselves to get our crap together," Christensen said. "And then when we won those two 22-20 games, we looked at each other and said, ‘We can win this.’ We had faith in each other.
"We watched a lot of film. Most of the guys on the team, during school days that week, we didn’t focus on anything except film. When we sat in class, we were watching film instead. I know I was. That win was all about everyone knowing it was possible."
Matt Trowbridge: 815-987-1383; firstname.lastname@example.org; @matttrowbridge