When Neuqua Valley and Naperville North last met at Harshbarger-Welzel Field two years ago, both programs were coming off years that fell below program standards while one of them was in the midst of breaking in a new era.
Following a 5-5 season the year before, Week 1 of the 2010 season officially ushered in the Sean Drendel era at Naperville North.
Tonight begins the Bill Ellinghaus era at Neuqua Valley on the heels of the Wildcats losing four straight games to end the 2011 season, finishing 5-5.
Spending the past eight years as Neuqua Valley’s offensive coordinator, Ellinghaus has matched wits with Drendel to start each of the last seven years.
Winning five of their previous seven meetings, Naperville North has had a stranglehold on the series, averaging 31.2 points a game in winning five straight from Neuqua Valley before the Wildcats broke through with a 37-23 home win last year.
“That is a piece of motivation. They have, out of seven years, I guess looking back on all seven years — I mean, yes, they’ve had (success against us),” Ellinghaus said. “The two games that we’ve won, we won at home.”
The Wildcats’ quest to get the program’s first victory at Naperville North tonight starts and finishes with 6-foot, 200-pound senior running back Joey Rhattigan, who ran for 1,271 yards and 20 TDs as a junior in 2011.
Rhattigan spearheaded a 492-total yard offensive output for the Wildcats against the Huskies’ defense last year by running 34 times for 167 yards and four touchdowns. The Wildcats’ stout running game accounted for 305 rushing yards.
“We’re gonna run our run package pretty much regardless of who we’re playing. Any run package is gonna set up certain other run plays, so a large part of being able to run the football is seeing what they’re giving us,” Ellinghaus said. “They may play some things a little bit differently than what they played them last year and based on what they do, we’ll see what run plays are gonna work for us. But we’re committed to running the football.”
Rebounding from a 5-5 finish is something Drendel’s team will start dealing with tonight. The Huskies dropped their final three games a year ago to finish at .500 for the second time in three seasons.
Rhattigan’s exploits against Naperville North’s defense in 2011 came a year after Trent Snyder gashed the Huskies to the tune of 144 yards and three TDs in the 2010 season opener, a 29-28 Naperville North victory.
“I mean, obviously, when you play Neuqua, you gotta stop the run first,” Drendel said. “We know that. It’s easier said than done, though. They do a great job. They’ve been known for a power running game and I don’t think that will change.”
Forcing Dylan Andrew, who takes over at quarterback for Neuqua Valley, to beat them with his arm as opposed to seeing the Wildcats pound the ball with Rhattigan and the rest of the Wildcats’ stable of running backs is the ideal situation for Drendel’s defensive charges.
Andrew completed three of nine passes for 36 yards to go with a touchdown and two interceptions while being used sparingly in seven games behind Nate Boudreau.
It’s a chess match that both teams are well aware of.
“You can’t beat your head against the wall,” Ellinghaus said. “North has been big in the past. Looking at their roster, it looks like they’re big again. So we’re not gonna pound our head against the wall if they’re getting all those guys to the box.”
While Rhattigan will understandably be the focus of Neuqua Valley’s offense, Naperville North will counter with its spread offense.
Senior quarterback Johnny Brown and two running backs, senior Kendall Velvolu and junior DeSean Brown, will be asked to deal with a Wildcats’ defense that may be a little different from the defense that former Neuqua coach Bryan Wells operated throughout his 14-year tenure.
Johnny Brown completed 16-of-29 passes for 251 yards in limited time in 2011, while DeSean Brown tallied 121 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.
“Well, I mean, we’re gonna do what we do. I think (Neuqua defensive coordinator Rodney) Jones has helped with their defense for many years with (Bryan) Wells, so it’s a big unknown, obviously,” Drendel said. “You’re not sure what they’re mainly gonna do. That just makes you hone in on what you do best. So we’ll try to stick to that game plan.”