Win puts Neuqua in semifinals for first time
BY BLAKE BAUMGARTNER For Sun-Times Media November 10, 2012 11:20PM
Neuqua Valley's Joey Rhattigan, who ran for three touchdowns, jumps to try and avoid a tackle against Waubonsie Valley. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 12, 2012 6:20AM
As he and his team continued to make program history with each and every week, first-year Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus spoke often about one key aspect.
Thrusting themselves into its first-ever state quarterfinal last week by eliminating defending Class 8A state champion Bolingbrook and with a second meeting awaiting with crosstown rival Waubonsie Valley, Ellinghaus was frank in describing the mentality and mindset of his charges.
“I will tell you that our kids aren’t satisfied and our kids will not be satisfied unless they beat Waubonsie this week,” Ellinghaus said on the Monday leading into Friday night’s Class 8A state quarterfinal with fourth-seeded Waubonsie Valley. “I’m not sure if we beat Waubonsie this week they’ll be satisfied because our kids have been really focused on our next game every single week and really they’re talking about state championship is the only way they’ll be satisfied.”
Looking adversity straight in the eye after going through perhaps its worst quarter of the year, Neuqua Valley took the next step toward a possible Class 8A state title Saturday night by doing what it has been doing all year — punching back.
Overcoming a postseason deficit for the third straight week, the top-seeded Wildcats continued to rewrite their program record books with a 23-20, come-from-behind victory over Waubonsie Valley, courtesy of senior kicker Ryan Mulhern’s 19-yard field goal with 6.9 seconds left in regulation.
Looking to make the program’s first state semifinal appearance in 20 years, Waubonsie Valley (10-2) came right out and smacked the Wildcats’ defense in the mouth.
Taking the game’s opening kickoff down the field 80 yards on six plays, Warriors’ senior running back Austin Guido got his team on the board first with a two-yard TD run with about 2 ½ minutes having elapsed off the first-quarter clock.
After stopping the Wildcats on their own 33 after five plays, the Warriors went right back to work on offense.
Refusing to be defied by a great punt from Mulhern, which pinned it at its own five-yard line, Waubonsie Valley senior QB Dylan Warden led his offense on a 12-play, 95-yard scoring drive that junior running back DeMario Webb capped with an eight-yard TD run, giving Waubonsie Valley a quick 14-0 advantage with 1:39 left in the first.
From there, behind its defense finally finding its footing — literally and figuratively — and its star senior running back, Joey Rhattigan, continuing to find his, Neuqua Valley (12-0) turned a 14-0 deficit into a 20-14 advantage by the end of the third quarter.
“We made a bunch of mental errors. We weren’t getting set up the right way,” Neuqua Valley senior strong safety Spencer Donahue said of the Wildcats’ defense’s first-half performance. “We weren’t playing our type of defense. We went in at halftime. We just said, ‘Hey, we gotta get set and just go play.’ Put it all on the line because this could have been it.”
But it’s not because of the resilience and focus of a unblemished group that now moves on to host third-seeded Mount Carmel, a 45-10 winner over 15th-seeded Lyons Township, next week in a Class 8A state semifinal.
Given an opportunity to start to gain some traction of his own as Neuqua Valley’s defense settled down, Rhattigan toted the rock 40 times while running for 292 yards and three TDs — following up his 346-yard, five-touchdown performance at Bolingbrook the week before with quite the encore.
Trailing 14-6 entering the second half, Neuqua Valley went to its workhorse as the 6-foot, 201-pound Rhattigan recorded his final two touchdowns on the night during the third — highlighted by his 15-yard TD run and eventually running successfully for the two-point conversion to give his team its first lead of the night at 20-14 with 52.2 seconds left in the third.
“You come out in these big games and you start out a little excited. We are high tempo and what we had to do in the second half was calm down a little bit and focus a little more and get back to what we do,” said Rhattigan, who now has 2,149 rushing yards and 33 TDs on the season. “We definitely did that.”
Sitting at both 12-0 and residing in the state semifinals for the first time, that ingrained focus isn’t likely to change with the games getting bigger.
“I think now it’s just making history unbeatable and that would be a perfect season and that would be the dream,” Rhattigan said.