Neuqua Valley stamped itself as the clear-cut favorite to win this year's DuPage Valley Conference football title when the Wildcats traveled to undefeated Naperville North on Friday night and came home with a 35-20 victory.
The win essentially gives the Wildcats (6-0, 5-0) a two-game DVC lead with three games to play.
"It feels great," said Neuqua senior linebacker Jon Rhattigan. "This was a milestone game for us, a huge DVC matchup with an undefeated team and we're pumped. It great to see our helmets in the air after a big win."
Like most games between evenly matched teams, the difference was turnovers. Neuqua took advantage of one very early when Isaiah Robertson tracked down a bad Huskies pump snap and returned it 11 yards for a score a little more than three minutes into the game. Then, after Neuqua's Tyler Cristafaro and Naperville North's Cross Robinson traded TD runs, Neuqua's Tommy Ciesla caused and recovered an Eric Wright fumble at the Wildcats' 31-yard line. Three plays later, Jake Eskoff hit Donald Navarro with a 63-yard scoring pass to stake Neuqua to a 21-6 halftime lead.
"They made some big plays," said Naperville North coach Sean Drendel. "They're a really good football team, so give them the credit. We did some good things, it wasn't terrible, but you can't give up a fumbled punt return for a touchdown to start the game."
The Huskies (5-1, 4-1) actually came out and controlled most of the third quarter, pulling within 21-14 on Robinson's 2-yard TD plunge and Luke Cegles' 2-point conversion toss to Mitch Lewis. But the Neuqua defense rose after that, stopping the Huskies twice on fourth down early in the fourth quarter. Both stands set up Neuqua's clinching scores, Eskoff's 14-yard pass to Sterling Gerald and Cam Raupach's 11-yard run.
"We'll always rally when we have adversity," Rhattigan said. "We just came together and made the plays when we had to."
Naperville North closed the scoring with 16 seconds to play when Lewis caught a 9-yard pass from Cegles.
"I like the way my team fought to the end," said Drendel, who saw his squad run 92 plays from scrimmage to Neuqua's 40. "Even afterward when we were gathered together, they were all asking, 'What's next?' I think we'll be ready to get back at it and get better next week."