In a game featuring two teams that had scored a combined 174 points the previous two weeks, offensive fireworks appeared to be a given when Neuqua Valley hosted South Elgin in a crucial Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division contest on Friday night.
But what transpired in the game's opening moments was ridiculous.
The score was 7-7 after just 24 seconds, with South Elgin's Zach Gross hitting John Stanko with an 80-yard touchdown pass on the game's first snap before Neuqua responded with Jeff Evak's 93-yard return on the ensuing kickoff. After that incendiary start, Neuqua Valley had a couple more big plays the rest of the night than the Storm as the Wildcats held on for a 35-21 victory.
"That first play was a great play," said South Elgin coach Dale Schabert, "but I was thinking that about six times in 33 years of coaching when that's happened I've seen the other team take the kickoff back. It was a sign of two well-coached teams; we punched them in the face and they came right back and punched us in the face."
Evak had another right cross in store for the Storm (2-3, 2-1) as he added a 74-yard touchdown grab late in the second quarter from Nate Boudreau that gave the Wildcats (4-1, 2-0) a seemingly comfortable 28-14 halftime lead.
"I got great blocking up front, it was open up the middle and I knew if I hit it with speed I'd have a chance," he said of the kickoff return, before adding: "On the touchdown pass, that was the most open I've ever been. I got a great ball from my quarterback and took it for six."
While the game featured plenty of pyrotechnics, Joey Rhattigan's 35 ground-chewing, clock-draining runs helped the Wildcats stay in command. His 1-yard run gave Neuqua a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter, and, after the Storm had tied it on Adolfo Pacheco's 5-yard burst, his 6-yard sweep capped a 10-play drive that gave Neuqua the lead for good midway through the second quarter.
Truth be told, South Elgin never came close to throwing in the towel. A fourth-down stop of Rhattigan kept Neuqua from extending its two-touchdown lead in the final minute of the first half, then Pacheco's 4-yard score early in the third quarter closed the gap to 21-14.
South Elgin did have two chances to knot the score in the fourth quarter but came up short on fourth down from the Neuqua 24 and 18, leaving Schabert with the thought that his squad had let one get away literally.
"We were so close to catching so many balls," he said. "They say it's a game of inches, and there were about 10 plays where we were an inch off. If we were able to make up those inches, then we probably score 45 points."
The night's final score came as the Wildcats were attempting to kill the final five minutes when Danny Dudek sprinted 77 yards, giving the final tally a slightly deceptive appearance.
"This is a huge win. I liked winning this one," Rhattigan said. "I've got to give it to the defense, especially in the second half when the offense was kind of struggling and they just really stepped up."