What is hoped by the Neuqua Valley football team to be a long and successful latter part of the season started Friday night in Roselle.
The Wildcats (8-0, 5-0 Upstate Eight Valley) clinched a share of the conference title with a 53-23 win over Lake Park. It's the first league prize for Neuqua since 2006. A win over Bartlett in the regular-season finale next week gives the Wildcats the title outright.
"We're very excited to bring the conference title back to Neuqua," said first-year coach Bill Ellinghaus. "But this team has its eyes on a bigger prize. We want to make the long playoff run and make an impact."
Last season the Lancers (3-5, 2-3) upset the Wildcats 33-30 on the same field. Neuqua's thoughts weren't more on the current moments than the past.
"I think we were more motivated to be 8-0," said Neuqua running back Joey Rhattigan, who scored 4 touchdowns, two of which were scoring passes, and who finished with 114 yards on the ground. "This is overwhelming. It's a great thing (winning conference) and this team deserves it. We work our butts off."
This game was in the books very early. The Wildcats enjoyed a 40-point second quarter to lead 47-7 at halftime and racked up 332 yards of offense in the first two quarters.
Neuqua got the big plays often during the first half. The first one came on a Dylan Andrew to Mike Dudek 70-yard pass play for the Wildcats' third touchdown.
Rhattigan's last TD of the evening came on a 54-yard touchdown pass and Joshua Prescher opened the second half with an 88-yard kickoff return touchdown.
Lake Park came into the game averaging just over 318 yards of offense per game and 28 points per contest.
"I think that was very important (gaining control of the game early)," said senior linebacker Sam Norgaard, who intercepted a pass for a touchdown. "We prepare well for every game and we practice hard. It came down to us making plays."
The Neuqua defense held the Lancers to just 28 yards on the ground during the first half and 146 total offensive yards during that time.
Lake Park had beaten South Elgin last week and needed a win over Neuqua and a victory East Aurora next week to be playoff eligible.
Kevin Teglia scored twice for the Lancers to increase his season TD total to 15, tops on the squad.
Neuqua will play host to Bartlett this coming Friday. Yes, winning the conference title outright is on the line, but so is being at the highest level of readiness for the playoffs.
"We have to continue to focus on getting ourselves better for the playoffs," Rhattigan said.