Last year, there wasn’t any doubt that Neuqua Valley would score. The only question was how many points.
This fall, though, who will do the scoring?
Joey Rhattigan, who owns every rushing record at Neuqua Valley, is now at Princeton after rushing for 2,226 yards and 33 TDs a season ago. Meanwhile, Dylan Andrew, who tossed 20 TD passes and threw for 1,647 yards, is at St. Thomas.
Even last year’s kicker — Ryan Mulhern, who had 69 points — needs to be replaced as he has taken his game to Western Illinois.
“You can’t replace (Rhattigan). No one can fill his shoes,” Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said. “He’s an incredible player, but you can’t worry about replacing him.
“As much as we’ll miss what he did on the field we’re especially going to miss his work ethic and what he brought to practice. Hopefully we can get some of that out of our kids.”
Neuqua Valley was an offensive juggernaut a season ago, scoring 34 or more points 11 times and averaging nearly 42 points a game.
“We’re going to be a different team this year,” Ellinghaus said. “We’re going to have multiple weapons and have to find ways to make plays.”
One player who can make big plays is Mikey Dudek, who had an electrifying 99-yard kickoff return in the Class 8A semifinals against Mount Carmel. He scored four special teams touchdowns last fall while leading the Wildcats in receiving with 46 catches, 991 yards and 14 TDs.
Speedy senior fullback TJ Scruggs also returns, while Ellinghaus expects big things from junior running back Nolan Dean and 6-3 wide receiver Ryan Kuhl.
“Mikey is a very good receiver and makes everyone around him better,” Ellinghaus said. “He’s emerged and has been named captain. TJ started at fullback last year and has tailback speed and we like Ryan Kuhl, another receiver.”
Who will orchestrate the offense, though, remains to be seen. Junior Broc Rutter and seniors Matt Perrigo and Conner Milliren are all capable, but Ellinghaus isn’t expected to name a starter until next week.
The defense didn’t have to be perfect last year due to the offense’s big numbers. They likely won’t have as much leeway this season and will turn to their senior core, which includes defensive ends Devon Griffin and Marcel Hurtado, linebackers Evan Cherney and Connor Swier and nose tackle Godfrey Collins.
“Our defensive line is really strong and we fell good about that and the linebackers,” Ellinghaus. “Where we’re going to be young is the secondary, but we’re very athletic back there.”
The Wildcats will open with a big target on their backs as they play host to Naperville North, a team they beat in both last year’s season opener and playoff opener.
“They’ll have a chip on their shoulder after getting beat twice last year,” Ellinghaus said. “And then we get (Naperville) Central, which looked very good in the summer, and then right into the Upstate Eight.”
Neuqua Valley WILDCATS
Last year’s record: 12-1
Coach: Bill Ellinghaus, 2nd year (12-1)
Players to watch: LB Evan Cherney, sr.; WR Mikey Dudek, sr.; NT Godfrey Collins, sr.; RB Nolan Dean, jr.; RB T.J. Scruggs, sr., LB Connor Swier, sr.
Aug. 30 Naperville North, 7:30
Sept. 6 at Naperville Central, 7:30
Sept. 13 x-South Elgin, 7:30
Sept. 20 St. Charles East, 7:30
Sept. 27 x-at East Aurora, 7:30
Oct. 4 x-Metea Valley, 7:30
Oct. 11 x-Waubonsie Valley (at North Central), 7:30
Oct. 18 x-West Chicago, 7:30
Oct. 25 x-at Bartlett, 7:30
x-Upstate Eight Valley game