Neuqua Valley gets its magic number
For all the talk of playoff points, what-ifs and if-then scenarios, the most important number for the Neuqua Valley football on Friday night was six.
Namely, that with a 28-7 defeat of visiting Naperville North, the Wildcats notched their sixth win of the season and punched their ticket to the Class 8A playoff party one year after they were left on the outside looking in.
"The kids are playing well right now, they're hungry and they know what a bitter taste it left in our mouths last year," said Neuqua coach Bill Ellinghaus. "These seniors were looking forward to another chance, and now they get to dress for Week 10."
The number 6 also played a pivotal role in the game itself as that's how many points the Wildcats (6-3, 3-1 DuPage Valley Conference) added to the scoreboard on Brandt Stare's 80-yard kickoff return. That scoring jaunt, Stare's fourth kickoff return for touchdown on the season, answered the 22-yard touchdown pass from Naperville North's Cliff Vickers to Reggie Fleurima that tied the game 7-7 with just more than one minute left in the opening half.
The Wildcats had opened the scoring on Mark Gronowski's 9-yard TD pass to Patrick Hoffmann with 90 seconds left in the first quarter.
"I just got the ball, the blocking's been great all season, I hit the hole and turned it into a touchdown; there were just great bocks from everyone," Stare said. "Special teams are a huge part of our team, we buy into them and work hard at it every week."
"Huge" was also the word that Naperville North coach Sean Drendel used to describe the momentum-changing play.
"Especially when you're battling, fighting, have a nice long drive and then they get that and get the ball to start the second half and punch one in," he added. "That was just a punch in the gut."
Indeed, the Wildcats took the first possession of the second half 80 yards in 8 plays with Armani Moreno picking up 52 of those yards on 2 carries and Will Chevalier doing the scoring honors from a yard out. Then after a Naperville North (3-6, 1-3) three-and-out that was punctuated by Matt Quinn's sack of Vickers, the Wildcats went 40 yards in nine plays, with Gronowski sweeping in from 2 yards out to make it 28-7 late in the third quarter.
Though the Huskies will turn after their equipment in a playoff-less season, the character they showed all year in facing one of the state's toughest schedules was on full display when they stopped the Wildcats on four straight plays from their own 4-yard line midway through the fourth quarter.
"Football is about character and that's one thing our kids showed all year," Drendel said. "We were behind in a bunch of games, but always fought back. We just have a bunch of good character guys. We did not have a single problem all year, and we love them."
The Wildcats will gather in front of a television Saturday night to see what their playoff fate has in store for them. After last year's disappointment, any opponent will do.
"Last year was a bad experience, but we came together to finish strong and keep our season going," said senior linebacker Kyle Borske, who spearheaded a defense that held the Huskies to 172 total yards, 48 in the second half. "We'll be ready to go for sure. Our defense is gonna shut them down and we're gonna put up points."