Neuqua Valley was sure something “special” on Friday night.
The Wildcats turned three big plays on special teams in the first quarter into 20 points and went on defeat host St. Charles East 34-0 in Upstate Eight crossover action.
Neuqua, ranked No. 10 in the Sun Times Super 25 and the Class 8A state poll, continued its best start in school history, improving to 4-0.
Mikey Dudek set the tone early when he returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
“J.R. (Niklos), my special teams coach, always says don’t hesitate and look for the first hole right up the middle,” said Dudek. “I got it and just took it to the house.”
Dudek was just getting warmed up. After the Saints first possession stalled, Dudek blocked the punt, which was recovered by Neuqua’s Spencer Donahue at the East 7-yard line. Just three plays later, Dudek scored on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Dylan Andrew to put the Wildcats up 14-0 a little over three minutes into the game.
Later in the quarter, Neuqua’s Ernest Edwards recovered a muffed punt by East at the Saints 19-yard line. That set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Joey Rhattigan with 2:12 left in the first quarter.
“Special teams is a phase of the game that often gets overlooked,” said first-year Neuqua coach Bill Ellinghaus. “But it is something we work on a lot. With the amount of time we spend on it we come to expect those kind of big plays. Obviously that really got us off to a great start tonight.”
Rhattigan added a 92-yard touchdown run later in the first half to give Neuqua a 27-0 lead at the break. Rhattigan finished with a 173 yards on 15 carries and he now has 11 touchdowns on the season.
The Wildcats defense took care of the rest, holding a strong Saints running game to just 78 yards and sacking East quarterback Jimmy Mitchell seven times.
“I’m real proud of the way our defense played,” said Ellinghaus. “We knew it was going to be a physical game and we were up to the challenge. We like to put the pressure on and tonight we were flying around making plays.”
An interception by Eric Bonner set up the only score of the second half, a 1-yard touchdown run by TJ Scruggs.
The Saints (2-2) turned the ball over three times in the second half.
“Give Neuqua all the credit, they really handed it to us tonight,” said East coach Mike Fields. “Those early mistakes really took a lot out of us. You just can’t give up those big plays and turn the ball over against a team as good as Neuqua.”
Vince Locascio came off the bench to lead the Saints in rushing with 46 yards on eight carries. Mitchell threw for 130 yards.