Pride was on the line between Wheeling and Elk Grove Friday night, and the host Wildcats were making the bulk of the mistakes during the early stages of their season finale.
Wheeling fumbled the ball on consecutive plays on its first two drives, and the second giveaway led to an 11-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Selvig to Vinny Faciano. Winless Elk Grove held an early 7-0 lead midway though the first quarter after being shut out in their last two games.
It appeared the Grenadiers would at least have a good chance of earning their first victory in their final game.
That was until Wheeling woke up and dominated the rest of the night.
The Wildcats beat the Grenadiers 38-22 to finish the season on a winning note. Wheeling advanced to a final record of 2-7, while the Grenadiers finished 0-9 for the second straight year.
Wheeling coach Brian Hauck was proud of his team for withstanding an early deficit and responding.
"They didn't blink," Hauck said. "We had some mistakes and miscues, but we worked hard to fight through those things and finish. They just kept pushing and they just kept fighting and they were rewarded tonight for that effort because they didn't give in.
"All I asked them was to believe in each other, believe in the team, believe in the seniors that are leading us and good things will happen."
Elk Grove gave Wheeling new life after a muffed punt set the Wildcats up on the Grenadiers' 31-yard line. Wheeling capitalized on the gift eight plays later when quarterback Michael Best connected with John Quintero on a 5-yard touchdown pass. Wheeling took the lead a play later when Best sprinted through a gaping hole that emerged thanks to an unconventional swinging gate formation on the ensuing 2-point conversion.
The Grenadiers were undone by turnovers throughout the night. Elk Grove coughed up the rock five separate times during the first half alone, losing three of them. They gave the ball away seven times total and allowed 30 points off those miscues.
Wheeling's third touchdown of the night came directly from a turnover after senior defensive lineman John Ulif scooped up an errant snap and ran a short distance to give Wheeling a comfortable 24-7 lead.
It was a big night in particular for a couple of Wheeling seniors. Solomon Kong scored rushing and receiving touchdowns and put the game away with a late interception. Ulif might've had the play of the game with his scoop and score in the first half. Hauck said his seniors played an enormous role in the final game their high school careers.
"They were huge," Hauck said. "We rely on them. They're the heart and core of our team."
Friday's win represented an excellent way for Wheeling's senior class to go out. But it also might have served as a glimpse into the future. Juniors Best and Quintero each scored twice and tailbacks Jonathan Panganiban and Ryan Glassberg played significant roles. Even sophomore Tyler Johnson got in the mix on occasion.
For Hauck, Friday's win was emblematic of his team's refusal to throw in the towel during a season that might be viewed as a disappointment following a playoff run the year prior. Wheeling's relentless mentality could bode well as it seeks a postseason return in 2018.
"What I'm most proud about is that they kept fighting until the end," Hauck said. "There was no quit in these guys, there was no quit in the team. The scoreboard and the results weren't what we wanted. The season wasn't what we wanted. But there was a fight in them that stayed until the end. They didn't pack it in. They didn't give it up."