Heady Neuqua Valley outlasts Stevenson
Neuqua Valley football coach Bill Ellinghaus puts special trust in quarterback Mark Gronowski, even when the Division I-bound QB isn't QB'ing.
Gronowski rewarded his coach Friday night, successfully executing a fake punt from deep in Wildcats' territory in the fourth quarter of a one-score game against host Stevenson in Lincolnshire.
"I was ready to kill him, at first," Ellinghaus joked. "But when he picked (the first down) up, I was like, 'OK, game on' "
Gronowski's heady play, Armani Moreno's relentless running, and a fourth-and-1 defensive stop late in the game helped Neuqua Valley pull out a 28-21 nonconference win.
Neuqua Valley improved to 2-0, while Stevenson fell to 0-2. The last time the Patriots lost their first two games of the season was 2013, when they went to the Class 8A state semifinals.
"We don't have any kind of expectations in terms of future goals like that," said Stevenson coach Brent Becker, who was an assistant on the '13 team. "We're just looking to be better each week. We got to fix us first."
Moreno, Neuqua Valley's 6-foot-1, 222-pound junior running back, rushed 33 times for 143 yards and 3 short touchdowns. His final TD, from 8 yards out, snapped a 21-21 tie on the second play of the fourth quarter. On the Wildcats' next series, he carried the ball nine times, before Stevenson stopped the visitors on downs at the Patriots 40.
"I love it," Moreno said of the workload. "I love just going at it, going at it, and just punching people."
The Wildcats' time-eating drive also included Gronowski's 16-yard again on fourth-and-12 from his team's own 12. He called the play out of punt formation.
"They always give me the opportunity to do what I want on that," said Gronowski, who's a North Dakota State commit. "We try to do that because it gives the offense an opportunity to get first downs. I can either make a play or make the punt. I just saw an opening, tried to make a play and it turned out well for us."
Moreno and Gronowski (35 rushing yards, 61 passing yards) ran behind Griffin Harmer, Nolan Baker, Neil McKeogh, Keegan Murray, Matthew Appel and Nolan LeBreck.
"I thought our offensive line did a great job tonight," Ellinghaus said. "Armani does a great job, and he's a powerful back, but I thought our offensive line really got after it and set the tone."
Stevenson's opening drive of the third quarter was pivotal. After a pair of false starts on their own 1, the Patriots punted the ball into their own player. Three plays later, Moreno scored from the 1 to break a 14-14 tie.
Neuqua Valley scored on the opening series of the game, as Gronowski hit Sean Larkin from 24 yards out to cap a 6-play, 62-yard drive. Stevenson answered on its first possession, going 78 yards on 12 plays, despite 4 penalties. Justin Hiller finished the drive with a 15-yard pass to Jordan Vincent.
The Wildcats regained the lead when Moreno capped a 12-play, 63-yard series by going in from the 1 with 2:10 left before halftime. Again, the Patriots answered, as JM Etienne (13 carries, 46 yards) won a race to the left pylon from 9 yards out with 1:18 to go.
Stevenson threatened one final time before the half ended, but Larkin intercepted Hiller inside the Neuqua Valley 20 as time expired.
"We made too many mistakes," said Becker, whose Patriots were penalized 11 times for 75 yards. "We had some things that we got to clean up. We some self-inflicted wounds tonight."