FULTON — Last fall, the Fulton High School football team advanced to the quarterfinal round of the IHSA state playoffs for the first time in five years.
The Steamers' advance through the Class 1A bracket was halted by a new rival, perennial state power Lena-Winslow. The Panthers rolled to a 54-28 victory over Fulton en route to their fifth state championship.
Since then, Fulton has eyed the rematch with Le-Win it knew it would get as members of the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference. That showdown comes Friday at 7 p.m. in Lena, and again there is plenty at stake.
Ranked No. 1 in 1A, the Panthers (4-0) sit atop the NUIC standings with four conference wins, with the sixth-ranked Steamers (3-1) sitting a half-game back with a 3-0 league mark.
Two weeks removed from a 31-22 win over reigning conference champion Durand-Pecatonica, a win tonight would give Fulton the inside track to winning its first NUIC football title in its second year of league membership.
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"It's a big game, and I hope we can come out ready to play and match Le-Win's intensity and physicality," said Fulton coach Patrick Lower. "We've had a good week of practice, so I think we will. When we played Du-Pec in Week 3, they were very physical and had a lot of good players back from 2021.
"We were able to be physical and play with them. Every game, our kids have been working hard for four quarters. As coaches, we tell the kids to believe in themselves, and they get after it."
The Steamers will be looking to get after it in a big way after suffering their first loss of the season last Saturday, dropping a 7-6 defensive duel at home to Muskegon (Mich.) Catholic Central in their lone nonconference tilt.
For his part, Lower feels that his club can take that loss and apply it to its preparations for Lena-Winslow.
"I think more than anything, we've adopted the philosophy that if you don't win a game, you can still learn from it," he said. "We played a very tough, physical team from Muskegon that was very strong up front and made it hard on us."
In addition to giving up just over 10 points per game through its first four contests, Fulton has maintained a strong offensive balance between its passing and ground games that was a hallmark of last year's 9-3 club.
Senior quarterback Braden Dykstra has completed 46 of 78 passes for 461 yards and four touchdowns, with 6-foot-6 junior end Baylen Damhoff his top target with 18 receptions for 209 yards and two TDs.
On the ground, the senior duo of Lukas Schroeder (335 yards, seven TDs) and Ryan Eads (285 yards, three TDs) have formed a solid one-two punch. On special teams, senior kicker Endi Qunaj gives the Steamers another potent scoring weapon.
"We feel like our special teams, with Endi, we have an advantage there," Lower said. "Our passing game, too; we're not afraid to throw the ball as well as run it."
When it comes to preparing for Le-Win, Lower and his squad know exactly what to expect. It just comes down to their ability to keep the Panthers in check and give themselves a chance to come out on top.
"Le-Win's very good every year doing the same things," he said. "It's no secret. They're not going to fool us, they're going to come right at us. We have to fill the gaps and be able to match their intensity."