The stands were jam-packed with Washington football fans for the Class 5A state semifinal Saturday.

The stands were jam-packed with Washington football fans for the Class 5A state semifinal Saturday.

The large throng of Panther supporters, who filled the bleachers and surrounding areas, was noticed across the sideline at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School.

"I'll tell you this for sure. Washington was louder than we were," SH-G head coach Ken Leonard said. "I just can't say enough for their fans."

The Washington contingent was on its feet several times before, during and after the game.

The Cyclones advanced to the Illinois High School Association state title game against Lombard Montini with a 44-14 victory.

The Panthers, who were riding a program-record 12-game winning streak, did not feel any extra pressure to win, less than one week after an EF-4 tornado destroyed parts of Washington.

"A lot of people told us, 'Win or lose, we're behind you,'" said Panther senior Chris Friend.

SH-G generously provided things such as water, transportation, meals and an in-game fundraiser to the community of Washington.

In on-field remarks prior to the afternoon kickoff, District 308 Superintendent/Principal Dr. Jim Dunnan presented SH-G with a flag created in Carol Wilson's consumer science class at Washington that commemorates the connection between the schools.

"We were truly blessed to have you in our corner throughout the entire week," said Dunnan.

Washington head coach Darrell Crouch talked about the Midwestern values exhibited by people from points near and far.

"Everyone has been overwhelmingly great to us," said the ninth-year Panther football leader.

The devastation caused by the Nov. 17 twister in the town of 15,000 people, amid Washington's quest for its first state championship game appearance in football in 28 years, drew the attention of national media.

While the game took center stage Saturday, the contributions of scores of people in the days leading up to the semifinal and the long road ahead to recovery also are spotlight-worthy.

The Panthers' deepest postseason advancement since 1985 came to a close, but the community still needs the incredible support for the black and orange that was evident in Illinois' capital city.

"It will be a long time before our town is back to the way it was," Crouch said.

But with the way so many people rose to the occasion in a time of need, there is reason for optimism for brighter days in the future.