Naperville North upsets Neuqua Valley on final play of DVC Bowl
Some were billing Friday's DuPage Valley Conference title game between Neuqua Valley and Naperville North as the DVC Bowl.
That's apropos, because this football game had everything but a sponsor.
Naperville North won the league title with a 34-32 victory over the previously undefeated Wildcats on an 18-yard touchdown run as time expired by junior quarterback Aidan Gray.
"We didn't start the way we wanted to at the beginning of the season, but week in and week out we've been trying to use this momentum going into each week, and we're super-excited to keep on moving," Gray said of his team, which finished the regular season 6-3 overall and 5-1 in conference.
The teams were playing for the DVC title by virtue of Neuqua Valley finishing first in the regular season and Naperville North taking second. The Wildcats beat the Huskies during the regular season. Neuqua Valley finished 8-1 and 5-1.
After trailing most of the game, Neuqua Valley finally went up 32-28 with 2:21 to go on a 1-yard run by junior quarterback Mark Mennecke, the culmination of a 5-play drive.
While things may have looked good for Neuqua Valley, Gray had other ideas in mind. The Huskies took over on their own 20 on the ensuing kickoff. A mix of runs by senior back Ethan Robert and Gray passes worked the ball down to the Wildcats' 18 with less than 20 seconds to go.
After two incompletions, Gray dropped back with nine seconds to go, got flushed from the pocket and raced downfield. He got a big block from senior lineman Connor Hare and then scampered into the end zone.
Ballgame. And championship.
"I saw a little bit of a lane up the middle, my blockers did a great job, they just opened it up for me," Gray said. "Connor Hare made a huge block. I just read the play and tried to get as many yards as a I could and it resulted in a touchdown."
Added Hare, who racked up that key block: "I just got a chip on him to make sure he didn't make the tackle. But hey, insane run by our quarterback, everyone blocked great. Loved it."
Earlier in the contest, Gray threw four touchdown passes of 24, 1, 65 and 76 yards On the evening, he completed 16 of 29 passes for 290 yards.
Naperville North's win overshadowed big nights from Neuqua Valley junior running back Jaden McGee, who rushed 21 times for 154 yards and a 13-yard touchdown in the second quarter that tied the game at 14.
Mennecke, too, was solid, rushing 18 times for 101 yards and adding another 148 on 8-of-15 passing.
But it was a tough defeat and a hard way to lose an undefeated season. Two fumbles lost, including one on the Naperville North 10-yard line with 7:34 to go, also didn't help.
"Give them credit, the kid made a nice play at the end of the game, and we fell just a little bit short," Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said. "They just made one more play than we did. We'll be back. Our kids are resilient. They played hard."
But the flip side was Ellinghaus's views on McGee, who's back after an ankle injury and showing real signs of being a force in the playoffs.
"He's really nursed an ankle injury since Week 2, and we said all week long that we felt like this is as close as he's been to 100 percent all year long," he said. "That kid's tough as nails."