Stare helps Neuqua Valley return with win
NORMAL -- A mighty chasm exists between being confronted with a gutsy decision and actually making it.
Coach Bill Ellinghaus made a couple Friday night on behalf of his win-hungry Neuqua Valley football team. They were November-like playoff decisions in September.
The Wildcats, already needing to hustle to get to six wins to be playoff-eligible, made good on two courageous calls in the second half that lifted the Wildcats to an exhilarating 36-35 victory over Class 7A sixth-ranked Normal Community.
With the Ironmen having just taken a 35-28 lead, Neuqua Valley senior Brandt Stare responded by returning the kickoff return 77 yards for a touchdown with 24 seconds left in regulation. His untouched dash to the end zone sent the small but vocal fans in the visitors' bleachers into delirium to trim the Ironmen lead to 35-34.
Then it was decision-making time. Kick the point after and hope for the best in overtime?
"We wanted to play to win," Stare said. "As soon as we scored, we all came to the sideline and said, 'Let's go for 2.' "
The sideline was all in. Both teams exhausted their remaining timeouts -- two for Neuqua Valley sandwiched around one for Normal Community -- before it was finally time to put the chips on the table.
The Wildcats (2-2) never wavered from their initial play call. Junior quarterback Mark Gronowski pitched to senior running back Will Chevalier, who pierced the Normal front and got into the end zone with the game-winning 2-point conversion.
"The past two weeks we've just been one play away," Chevalier said. "We didn't have a kickoff return for a touchdown at all last year and none this year either. It was a unanimous decision to go for 2, and it was a great decision."
Just as weighty was a fourth-down decision late in the third quarter. Trailing 21-14, the Wildcats went for paydirt on the Normal 7-yard line, and Gronowski made good with a bootleg run to tie the game with 1:56 left. Gronowski finished with 206 yards passing and 2 touchdowns.
"We saw something on the previous play that made us feel like that one would be there for us," Ellinghaus said. "And it was."
Ellinghaus acknowledged the decisions were made with reaching the playoffs in mind. And also with not giving Ironmen senior quarterback Daylen Boddie much more time with the football in his dangerous hands in overtime.
"It really was," he said. "You can tell kids one play at a time, but we needed a win. It's a race to six wins for us, and our schedule is not easy. We need to play to win. And that quarterback over there … I'm not sure I like overtime with how dynamic he is."
Boddie finished with 179 yards rushing, 180 passing and 3 touchdowns as Normal Community fell to 3-1.
"We came in here 1-2 and knowing we needed to get a win and get some momentum," Stare said. "It was like a playoff win."