Neuqua Valley is getting close.
Coach Bill Ellinghaus' Wildcats have swept the last two Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division titles. They advanced to the 2012 Class 8A quarterfinals and 2013 semifinals, ousted by eventual champions Mt. Carmel and Naperville Central.
"Our goal is obviously to win the Upstate Eight (Valley) in our last year (before going to the DuPage Valley), and then ultimately make a playoff run in hopes of getting downstate," Ellinghaus said. "That's been one of our goals the last three years. The goal of getting downstate has not gone away for us."
He'll attack it with a varsity roster of 89 players, seven returning starters on offense and eight on defense, which is where Ellinghaus would most like to improve.
Despite linebacker Nolan Dean's transfer to Nazareth, Neuqua's 3-5 defense returns five of last season's top 10 tacklers, including Nos. 2-3, linebackers Derrek Warkenthien and Eli Tappin. Four defensive backs with starting experience return, paced by potential college cornerbacks Famus Hasty and Nathan Bailey. Graduation hit the defensive line the hardest, but Chris Rice and Tyler Bromer will complement returnee Patrick Cadogan.
Offensively, quarterback Broc Rutter owns an Indiana State offer. A great leader, in 2013 Rutter completed a crisp 62 percent of his passes for 2,167 yards, 30 touchdowns. Four returning offensive linemen protect him -- Hank Michalski, Jon Bylak, Devin Eubanks and Tom Cwiok. Prospective starter Jarred Cruger goes 6-foot-6, 305 pounds.
Neuqua will miss all-state receiver and kick returner Mikey Dudek. Ellinghaus looks to find a playmaker from a cast including running backs Dom Muoghalu, Charlie Hunter, Aurora Christian transfer Kimani Mobley, receivers Alex Teresky, Evan Moore and Isaiah Robinson.
"It's going to take us staying healthy, it's going to take our kids having a great work ethic and continuing to work hard," Ellinghaus said. "It always takes unity, the kids have got to come together as a unit. If that happens we feel like we're pretty talented."
Coach: Bill Ellinghaus (third year, 22-3).
2013 record: 10-2, 6-0, first in Upstate Eight Valley.
Top players: Nathan Bailey (DB, 5-11, 180, sr.); Jon Bylak (OL, 6-6, 250, sr.); Famus Hasty (DB, 5-10, 180, sr.); Charlie Hunter (RB, 5-10, 175, sr.); Hank Michalski (OL, 6-2, 255, sr.); Evan Moore (WR, 6-2, 185, sr.); Dom Muoghalu (RB, 5-9, 185, sr.); Broc Rutter (QB, 6-2, 195, sr.); Eli Tappin (LB, 6-0, 170, sr.); Derrek Warkenthien (LB, 5-9, 210, sr.).
Fri, 8/29 Neuqua Valley at Naperville North 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 9/5 Naperville Central at Neuqua Valley 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 9/12 Neuqua Valley at Glenbard East 7:30 p.m.
Sat, 9/20 Neuqua Valley at South Elgin 1:30 p.m.
Fri, 9/26 East Aurora at Neuqua Valley 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/3 Neuqua Valley at West Aurora 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/10 Bartlett at Neuqua Valley 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/17 Waubonsie Valley at Neuqua Valley 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/24 Neuqua Valley at Metea Valley 7:30 p.m.