CAMP POINT, Ill. – The image speaks volumes.
A standing Camp Point Central coach Brad Dixon is shown addressing his kneeling players following Saturday’s emphatic road victory in the state semifinals.
In the same photo, a massive group of students, family and fans are standing behind the veteran head coach.
The Central Panthers, who will play for the Class 1A state championship Friday morning, are more than just an outstanding football team.
They truly are a family with a unique bond who have built a championship culture in a small, tight-knit and passionate community.
“The support we have received is just outstanding,” Dixon said. “There is an expectation that we are going to win here and make these types of runs in the playoffs. Football obviously is a very big deal at our school and in our community. We couldn't do this without everyone's commitment to this.”
You can witness how special this time has been on a drive to Central High School. Black flags and banners occupy and line one side of the road. Signs for each player, complete with their name and jersey number, run down the other side.
“It definitely pumps you up every time you see that,” Panthers quarterback Nick Moore said. "It's pretty amazing.”
Camp Point Central will have its hands full Friday, facing a formidable foe in Lena-Winslow in the Class 1A title game. But it is a challenge the Panthers embrace.
The teams will meet in football for the first time.
Also nicknamed the Panthers, Lena-Winslow is ranked No. 1 in Class 1A and is the defending state champion.
The school from north central Illinois has won five state titles since 2010 and captured three of the last four crowns.
But Camp Point Central is no slouch either, carrying a No. 2 state ranking into its second state championship game.
Central finished as Class 1A state runner-up in 2018. The Panthers fell to Forreston 44-6 in the finals on a freezing Friday in Champaign.
“Everything went really fast that day and obviously didn’t go our way,” Dixon said. “It was all kind of a blur.”
The Panthers are coming off a 44-8 thumping of Ridgeview-Lexington in their semifinal road win Saturday.
Central is 13-0 and has outscored its four playoff opponents by a combined score of 158-20. These Panthers average 42 points per game and allow just five per contest.
“Our kids have met every challenge,” Dixon said. “And they’ve competed really well. I expect them to be focused and ready to go.”
Senior Isaac Genenbacher leads Camp Point Central's balanced and potent rushing attack with 990 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground.
Classmate Ross Riley has run for 750 yards and 12 scores.
Both players were in eighth grade when they attended Central's 2018 state title game.
“Playing for a state title has been a dream of mine ever since I saw that game,” Genenbacher said. “I’ve always wanted to do this.”
“I was there in 2018 and it was a great atmosphere,” Riley said. “I’ve always wanted to go back. I never thought I would go back to Champaign to play this time. I can’t wait. This is what we’ve worked for.”
Junior Conner Griffin has gained 755 yards and run for nine TDs for Central.
Camp Point Central has rushed for a whopping 4,191 yards in 13 games.
“Our goal all year has been to win a state title,” Genenbacher said. “We don’t really care who is favored or who we are playing. We love to play football and we are focused on reaching our goals.”
Moore, a junior, has passed for 538 yards. He also was in attendance for the 2018 state finals.
“I imagined myself being in this position someday,” Moore said. “I can’t believe I’m here now.”
Central will be an underdog for the second straight game, but that just adds fuel to the Panther fire.
“We weren’t picked to win our last game either and you saw what happened,” Moore said. “We feed off that and being an underdog motivates us. We will take on anybody.”
Lena-Winslow is 13-0 and has outscored its four playoff foes 214-43. These Panthers average 51 points per game and allow just 12.
Le-Win routed rival Forreston 38-16 in the semifinals. The Panthers rushed for 309 yards on 35 carries while not attempting a pass.
Le-Win is led by standout running back/defensive end Gage Dunker.
The junior rushed for 212 yards and three touchdowns in the semis. He also recorded a game-high 14 tackles.
Senior teammate Gunar Lobdell rushed for 82 yards and two TDs against Forreston.
The favored Panthers have punted just 10 times this season.
“Lena-Winslow is the class of 1A,” Dixon said. “They play a physical style – nothing fancy. They are going to run it right downhill. We are going to have to be aggressive and get after them. We can’t sit back defensively.
“Offensively, we’ve got to put some drives together and punch in a few ourselves. We have to limit their possessions.”
Camp Point Central and Lena-Winslow will have an early wake-up call Friday with kickoff set for 10 a.m. at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium.
Dixon said his team will practice at Central High on Thanksgiving morning before the players and coaches head home to eat dinner with their families.
The squad will then travel by bus to Champaign on Thursday afternoon and stay in a hotel that evening.
Dixon said the Panthers are scheduled to arrive at the stadium at 8 a.m. Friday for the 10 o’clock kickoff.
“We’ve been through this before and we know what to expect,” Dixon said. “Having gone through it definitely helps.”
Camp Point Central is expected to have a large contingent of fans making the three-hour drive to Champaign.
“The whole community will be going to the game and that's awesome,” Genenbacher said. “What we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished, it means so much to everyone here. The culture here is awesome. The fans, the community, they all want the best for us.”
Dixon’s teams have won 20 playoff games in his 12 seasons at Camp Point Central.
But one win has eluded him.
And there is a golden opportunity to alter history with a win in the finals on Friday.
“We want to put a good product on the field and make our community proud,” Dixon said. “And bring back the first state championship in school history.”
Camp Point Central has never won a state title in any sport. The 2018 football finals were the only time a Panther athletic team has competed in a state title game or match.
“There is a lot more to all of this than championships – these kids will have great memories from this experience no matter what happens,” Dixon said. “But to bring that first state championship trophy home would be super special. It would be something no one could ever take away.”