The fickle nature of momentum was on full display on Friday night when Neuqua Valley hosted Naperville Central in a critical early-season DuPage Valley Conference football contest.
Despite trailing 17-10 with just more than four minutes to play, it appeared that old Uncle Mo was firmly ensconced on Naperville Central's sideline when a bad Wildcats punt snap set the Redhawks up at the Neuqua 17, making overtime a distinct possibility. But on the next play, Wildcats linebacker Anthony Ippolito latched onto Patrick Ryan's deflected pass and returned it 85 yards for the clinching score in Neuqua's 24-10 victory.
"I just happened to be in my zone, the defensive line got great pressure, Tommy Ciesla got his hand on it and it just fell into my hands," Ippolito said. "Then I got some great blocking from the other defensive players and just went down the field together."
"We ran a little checkdown route and their linebacker jumped it and he made a great play on it," was Naperville Central coach Mike Stine's review of the climactic play.
The interception return was actually Ippolito's second trip to the end zone on the night. He opened the scoring with a 2-yard plunge that capped a 61-yard drive and gave the Wildcats (2-0, 2-0) a 7-0 lead with two minutes left in the first quarter.
Though they struggled to establish a running game all night, finishing with 27 yards on the ground, the Redhawks (0-2, 0-2) answered with the equalizing score on their ensuing possession. Ryan followed his 17-yard scramble with a 31-yard hookup with Joshua Ruiz to help set up A.J. Deinhart's tying 2-yard run on the third play of the second quarter.
The Wildcats took the lead for good 23 seconds before the break when Stephen Ruiz's 23-yard field goal made it 10-7. After a scoreless third quarter, Neuqua stretched the advantage to 17-7 on Griffen Philgren's 9-yard run with just less than 10 minutes to play. Naperville Central got back in it when Peter Villanova recovered Isaiah Robertson's fumble at the Neuqua 34 and the Redhawks converted the turnover into 3 points courtesy of Andrew Delgado's 23-yard field goal, which set the stage for the pivotal head-spinning momentum swings.
"After that bad snap I thought, here we go, we're back at it, but then the defense picks off the ball and we get lucky to make the last big play," said Neuqua coach Bill Ellinghaus.
The game was an emotional one for both squads. It was the first the two schools played with the WildHawk Trophy at stake. The trophy honors the memory of Tom Schlegel, a 1979 Naperville Central grad and long-time Neuqua Valley teacher and coach who passed away 10 years ago.
"Tommy was one of my best friends, we came to Neuqua together," Ellinghaus said. "He was a great guy, loved football and was so prideful for Naperville Central and Neuqua Valley. We're gonna take that trophy and put it on his old desk."