Maine South edges Neuqua Valley in 8A thriller
No one expected anything less than a fight to the bitter end from this Neuqua Valley football team, even after Maine South had taken a 14-0 lead in the third quarter of Saturday night's Class 8A quarterfinal in Naperville.
Sure enough the Wildcats, with a proud and talented group of senior leaders, fought hard to the very end before coming up just short in a thrilling, yet gut-wrenching 14-13 defeat to the 11-1 Hawks, who will take on Marist in next weekend's state semifinal action.
"They kept coming and coming. We knew they would," Hawks coach David Inserra said. "That interception before the half was huge on our part, taking away points before the half. It was an outstanding effort by these boys, stepping up. Sixteen-, 17-, 18-year-olds played a heck of a game with a lot of courage."
In a battle of two stout defenses, Maine South led 7-0 at the half after a 36-yard pass from Rowan Keefe to Evan Agosto split a pair of defenders and broke a scoreless tie late in the second quarter. The Hawks' Kevin Wolf and Frank Bartel each recorded interceptions in the red zone to keep the Wildcats off the board in the first half.
Keefe's second touchdown of the night, an 80-yard strike to Northwestern tight end recruit Chris Petrucci four minutes into the second half, seemed to put the Hawks in control, but the game was far from over.
"I knew we had to make some plays," Keefe said. "Our defense was making plays all night. Chris ran a great route and caught the ball. They ran the coverage that we liked and it worked out."
Neuqua senior Palmer Domschke sparked his team with a 26-yard scamper on a fake punt. The play set the stage for Jaden McGee's 1-yard touchdown run that closed the gap to 14-7 after three quarters. The Wildcats defense stayed strong and allowed the hosts to keep alive hopes of the school's first football state title.
"These seniors have a tremendous bond and I'm just honored to be their coach. I'm sorry for the way it ended but these are special young men. That fight to the very end like you saw tonight," Neuqua coach Ben Ellinghaus said.
Taking over at the Hawks '49-yard line following a punt with 9:28 left to play, Neuqua Valley (10-2) drove to what looked to be a game-tying score. Mark Mennecke avoided a sack on one play to connect with Grant Larkin for 20 yards and later scrambled for 11 yards down to the 3. A big hit knocked Mennecke out of the game for a spell, but Domschke took a pitch from backup RJ Cluxton to go the final three yards to close the gap to 14-13. Unfortunately, Domschke's PAT kick struck the right upright and bounced back, keeping the Wildcats one point shy of drawing even.
Neuqua Valley got the ball back one more time and Domschke attempted a 51-yard field in the final seconds with a chance to pull out the game, but the kick was low and short, sending the Hawks back to the semis for the first time since 2017.
"It was a war. We're out here in the mud. It was quality playoff football. This is quarterfinal football. We knew it was going to be a war when we came here, bring the baseball bats, bring your nunchucks, bring your brass knuckles because it was war," said Keefe, who finished 9-for-19 for 218 yards and two scores.
For Mennecke and his teammates, it was a tough way to see a great season end.
"In the end there's no one to blame. The whole game we battled," the junior quarterback said. "We came out slow in the first half and then we came out loud in the second half. That [fake punt] was definitely a momentum changer. Palmer's a great player and no one can blame him at all. I'm looking forward to next year, to coming back stronger and better."