Though Bartlett and Neuqua Valley entered Friday night's Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division regular-season finale in Naperville assured of qualifying for the Class 8A playoffs, both squads still had a lot to play for.
On the line for Neuqua were the school's first undefeated season, first outright UEC title since 2006 and no worse than a No. 2 overall seed when the playoffs start.
For Bartlett, there was a share of the UEC Valley crown, a seventh win that could mean a first-round home playoff game and a third straight defeat of the Wildcats at stake.
In the end it was the Wildcats (9-0, 6-0) who saw their dreams come true. They struck for 3 first-quarter touchdowns, cruising to a 42-14 victory that completed the program's first 9-0 season.
"These (seniors) went 9-0 as freshmen, and we challenged them at the start to do it again," said first-year head coach Bill Ellinghaus. "We have a great group of kids and it is special to go 9-0. I'm very proud of them, they are such a business-like team that stays focused from every practice to the games. And these kids are not satisfied at all, they're hungry and now we have to come out and play well next week."
The focus of the Wildcats defense was stopping Bartlett running back Aaron Everson, who was averaging 216 yards a game and had scored 25 touchdowns. They did just that, holding the speedy senior to 40 yards on 16 carries.
"We knew we had to make a couple adjustments during the week because we knew they were heavy run," said senior nose guard Alex Jaquez, who dogged Everson all night. "We knew it was going to be a physical game and we just out-physicaled them. It's amazing to think we are the first team ever to go 9-0, phenomenal."
Neuqua's two main offensive threats -- senior running back Joey Rhattigan and junior receiver Mike Dudek -- helped stake the Wildcats to a quick lead. Dudek carried a pass from Dylan Andrew 47 yards to the Bartlett (6-3, 4-2) before Rhattigan drove in from there on the next snap to make it 7-0 just 69 seconds into the game.
Dudek doubled the lead with a 68-yard punt return to paydirt before Rhattigan sprinted 27 yards on the quarter's final play for a 21-0 lead after 12 minutes. Rhattigan's 4-yard run made it 28-0 at halftime with the final 24 minutes just setting the stage for the postgame celebration, which included Ellinghaus getting doused with water as the final seconds ticked away.
Everson and Alex Bailey had scoring runs in the second half for Bartlett, which were matched by Andrew's 38-yard scoring strike to Dudek and T.J. Scruggs' 36-yard run for Neuqua.
"They're a first-half team and it's tough to slow down a train," said Bartlett coach Tom Meaney. "They're a heck of a team, and you have to be to finish first in this conference. We have a tough road to go in the playoffs, but we'll see how we play next week."