Neuqua’s next test: Defending champions

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Immediately following last Friday’s first-round triumph over Naperville North, Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus implored his charges to stay on message.

Since getting tabbed as Bryan Wells’ successor in April, Ellinghaus has stressed that the 2012 season has been all about the 2012 season and not about what has happened in the past.

That won’t change Friday night with the top-seeded Wildcats hitting the road to face ninth-seeded and defending Class 8A state champion Bolingbrook, which eliminated the Wildcats from the postseason a year ago.

“I’ve really worked hard to downplay last year. I’ve told everybody that. Really it’s not about last year,” Ellinghaus said. “It’s not a revenge game or anything like that for us. I look at it like ‘We’re the 2012 Wildcats and we’re going up against the 2012 Bolingbrook team.’ I don’t think it’s anything about last year.”

Losing 33-14 to the Raiders in the first round of the Class 8A playoffs last year, tonight is about what has gone right thus far this season for Neuqua Valley en route to the first 10-0 start in program history.

Averaging 45.3 points a game, the Wildcats have struck an offensive balance behind quarterback Dylan Andrew, running back Joey Rhattigan and wide receiver Mike Dudek, who has already established a new single-season program record for receiving yards and could set new single-season marks for receptions and receiving touchdowns Friday night.

Sending the defending Class 8A champions packing would just add to it.

“Bolingbrook is gonna be a very exciting game. We’re gonna prepare for them just like any other week. Stay focused and I hope we play them the best we can,” said Rhattigan, who gained 68 yards and a score on 22 carries against the Raiders last year and has combined to set four different program records in two of the last three weeks.

While the Wildcats’ offense will be looking to move the ball and keep its balance going against a Bolingbrook defense that Ellinghaus called “very fast,” attention will be paid toward the availability of star Bolingbrook quarterback Aaron Bailey.

The Illinois-bound Bailey, who rushed for 300 yards and four touchdowns in the Raiders’ 33-14 triumph over Neuqua Valley last year, has missed the Raiders’ last four games after suffering a sprained MCL on Sept. 28.

Bailey was cleared to play last week but didn’t as Raiders’ sophomore quarterback Quincy Woods led a 32-point second-half for Bolingbrook (8-2) on its way to routing Sandburg, 39-7. Bailey recently told Rivals.com’s Illinois site he’s “95 percent” and he “should be back” vs. Neuqua.

“Bolingbrook, to me, is a team that is going to do what they do. They’ve done it well for several years now,” Ellinghaus said. “Bailey is a very unique player. He’s a one-of-a-kind. He can do it all and they’ve got a lot of speed — both offensively and defensively to go with Bailey and whatever he does. If the sophomore kid is there, they’ve tried to fit the sophomore kid into that same mold of being that option quarterback. I mean, they run the option as good as any team I’ve ever seen.”

Regardless of who takes the snaps under center for Bolingbrook and how the Wildcats decide to combat the Raiders’ defense, Neuqua Valley will be looking to find any way to win and get the program to its first state quarterfinal appearance.

“That’s significant. That’s significant to our kids. We’ve talked about that and that’s our goal,” Ellinghaus said. “Our goal is to make it past this round, to hopefully put us in the playoffs (further) than we’ve ever been and then I don’t think our kids would be satisfied with that either. But we’re focused on this one football game this week and a chance to make it to the quarterfinals will be pretty special if we can get that done.”

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