Naperville North coach Sean Drendel said his players felt a little disrespected by many of the preseason prognosticators, most of whom didn't set the bar too high for a team coming off a 5-5 campaign.
But after Friday's season-opening 14-13 defeat of highly regarded Neuqua Valley, the Huskies will not be overlooked again any time soon. The Huskies forced four Wildcats turnovers and came up with the biggest play of the game in the waning seconds, stopping Neuqua Valley's 2-point conversion attempt to secure the big victory.
Host Naperville North had led 7-0 at the half and 14-0 following Mikey Caldarrazo's 1-yard touchdown late in the third quarter. But things got hairy after the Wildcats countered with a 1-yard TD from Charlie Hunter early in the fourth. Then they drew within a single point on a 6-yard scoring pass from Broc Rutter to tight end Brett Borske with 38 seconds left to play.
But instead of attempting a kick and potentially heading to overtime, Wildcats coach Bill Ellinghaus called a timeout and then put the ball in Rutter's hands with a chance to win the game. But the senior was pressured by linebacker Colin Herbstritt on the play and his pass was tipped away at the goal line by junior defensive back Joe Zitelle, who had a terrific game with an interception, a fumble recovery, a caused fumble and then the game-saving pass deflection.
"I was thinking we were going to overtime, so I was a little surprised," Zitelle said of the decision to go for the 2-point conversion. "I tipped it away, but our ‘D' line was phenomenal and the backers and defensive backs were all making plays. It feels great. It's awesome."
For Drendel, who had a nice game from quarterback Chris Gajcak, it was hard still not to focus on his team's defensive effort. The Wildcats, who had won a 34-27 shootout with the Huskies in last year's season opener, had just two first downs in the first half and were blanked for three quarters before the passing of Rutter and the running of Hunter got them back into the contest.
"Our offense methodically went about our business and our defense rose to the occasion," Drendel said. "We're physical up front, so if you're not careful you're going to get some people hitting you."
It is that physical play showcased by a big defensive line, fast linebackers and even safety David Pinkerton, who charged the line and led the way with 12 tackles and a fumble recovery, that might just earn Naperville North plenty of respect this season.
"It was a lot of players making big plays," said Pinkerton, a senior.
"It was a great boost. We thought we had a great team going into the season and we knew we were physical. I guess it showed tonight on the field."
For Ellinghaus, it was a tough call to go for 2 at the end, but he liked his chances with the way Rutter and the offense bounced back with 16 second-half first downs and two scores.
"That was not the finish we wanted," he said. "I thought about it obviously. The kids wanted to go for 2. We've got a brand-new kicker, so could he have tied it up, yeah, but going into overtime ... with what they were doing and with what we were doing, I just felt we had the momentum and we wanted to put it into our senior quarterback's hands and they came out on top. Give them credit for making a big play."
Drendel said his players did have a little chip on their shoulders taking on a ranked team that most considered to be a favorite on Friday.
"Our kids were a little bit disappointed that we weren't ranked and up there," he said. "We've got high standards here. They know it and they want this to be 18 years in a row in the playoffs. Tonight we looked like a Huskie football team."