Neuqua Valley thwarts Naperville North's rally
It felt like Sept. 20, not March 20.
Perfect autumn-like weather, an exciting football game, and enough spectators to make some noise.
Welcome to the new normal.
Neuqua Valley hung on to beat Naperville North 29-22 Saturday thanks to an onside kick recovery by senior Payton Matthews with 36 seconds left.
But it is March, and Matthews is just glad to have the opportunity to suit up and play. Who cares if it's later than expected, and there's no state playoffs?
"This is huge, it means everything to me," Matthews said. "I didn't expect to have a season coming into the fall and January, too. It's just a blessing to come out here and play with my brothers one last time."
Nearby, senior defensive lineman Samuel Applebaum concurred.
"Obviously, being senior year, it's all I've been waiting for," said Applebaum, who played a big role in putting pressure on Naperville North's two-headed quarterback tandem of senior Jonathan Bell and sophomore Aidan Gray.
"The fact that we were able to get the season in in March is phenomenal. It's an unbelievable experience to end senior year."
You want action? Get this.
Neuqua Valley was up seemingly comfortably 29-8 with 6:57 to go. But Naperville North put together a 6-play, 65-yard drive, with Gray connecting with senior receiver Stephen Williams on a 30-yard touchdown. Luca Springer's extra point cut the lead to 29-15 with 5:15 to go.
Still looking good for Neuqua Valley (1-0), right?
Wrong. The Wildcats' ensuing drive stalled on the Naperville North 40, and after a punt, the Huskies took over on their own 15. Bell subsequently put together a 15-play, 85-yard drive that culminated with a 14-yard touchdown pass to freshman Luke Williams.
That prompted everyone to hold their breath as Springer executed a flawless onside kick. But Matthews had the sure hands.
"I'm super proud of the guys, but like I told them, you can't turn the ball over six times and expect to win," Naperville North coach Sean Drendel said. "We gave them too many chances."
Across the field, Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus was ruminating about Matthews' onside recovery kick.
"We spend a lot of time on special teams for them to come up big, it was no surprise in a situation like that," he said. "Definitely a big play."
Another play you might overlook was kicker Palmer Domschke's 35-yard field goal with 6:40 left in the third quarter. If Naperville North (0-1) recovers that onside ...
"I just go up and hit the ball," Domschke said. "I know with my abilities, I'm not going to miss a field goal. I train too hard to miss."