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Daily Herald: Unbeatens meet in DuPage Valley showdown

After five weeks of high school football, two unbeaten teams have emerged atop the DuPage Valley Conference standings.

Neuqua Valley will visit Naperville North’s Harshbarger-Welzel Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Friday, each squad boasting 5-0 overall records, 4-0 in conference. Huge? Yes. Also business as usual in the DVC.

“We’re approaching this game like we’ve approached every other game,” said Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus, in his fifth season at the helm. “We’re going to take care of ourselves first. We’ve got to get better. There’s certainly room for improvement on offense and defense.”

Naperville North coach Sean Drendel could have vouched for that the past couple years. The proud program that won state titles in 1992 and 2007 fell to consecutive 2-7 seasons in 2014 and 2015.

Sixteen returning starters can bring back some mojo. So did the hiring of spread offense guru Mike Fitzgerald, former St. Francis head coach and Marist offensive coordinator. Also former Plainfield Central coach John Jackson, an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee who ran the defense for Naperville North’s 1992 Class 6A champions.

The Huskies gained attention this summer by reaching the championship round of Wheaton Warrenville South’s Red Grange Classic 7-on-7 competition. They have yet to relinquish it.

“Since about this time last year we’ve been focusing on running the football and stopping the run. That’s what we’ll need to do again this game,” Drendel said.

The Huskies have succeeded on both counts this season. Led by the one-two backfield punch of Eric Wright (534 yards, 6 touchdowns) and Cross Robinson (355 yards, 2 touchdowns) Naperville North has run for 1,038 yards.

A defense anchored by tackles Isaac Velasco and Malik Wells and linebacker Derek Amend has allowed just 82 rushing yards a game. Defensive back Kiser Floyd leads the Huskies with 32 tackles and Grant Ericksen is among DuPage County’s interception leaders with 4.

Quarterback Luke Cegles, a returning starter, has passed for 839 yards and 11 touchdowns to only 3 interceptions. Possession receiver Matt Montgomery (20 catches, 173 yards) stands 5-10 but he’s in the minority; Nick Calcagno (18 catches, 250 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Mitch Lewis (9 catches, 219 yards, 5 touchdowns) go 6-3 and 6-6, respectively.

“Our kids have handled the attention pretty well, but this week will be a little different,” Drendel said. “It’s a game that means a lot to both teams. It’s a game that could determine the conference champion.”

Neuqua Valley’s been in this position many times, earning at least a share of six Upstate Eight Conference titles before finishing third in the DVC in 2015, their first year in the league.

Neuqua remains unbeaten even without its full complement of players, namely Notre Dame-bound receiver-safety Isaiah Robertson and Navy-bound receiver Owen Piche, who have been either out or limited by injury.

Depth has responded. Though Robertson (17 catches, 220 yards, 3 touchdowns) is coming on, Donny Navarro (27 catches, 346 yards, 2 touchdowns) enters Friday as the Wildcats’ top receiver.

Quick junior running back Cameron Raupach has run for 379 yards, 4 touchdowns. The quarterback duo of senior Jack Bastable and junior Jake Eskoff has been a success. By series or by hot hand they’ve combined to throw for 832 yards and 5 touchdowns, completing a sparkling 70.8 percent of their passes.

Defensively, lineman Tommy Ciesla (28 tackles, 8 for loss) and linebackers Jon Rhattigan (41 tackles, 5 for loss) and Anthony Ippolito (34 tackles) head a unit that, like Naperville North, stuffs the run, allowing an average of 79.2 yards on the ground.

Neuqua’s secondary of Robertson, JaQuere Williams, Joey Elwood and Ryan Wheeler (3 interceptions) is a big reason opponents complete only 47 percent of their passes against them.

“We’ve played well for a quarter, we’ve played well for a half, but we’ve felt like we have not put four quarters together,” Ellinghaus said. “For us it’s about playing better, playing faster, playing physically. All year long we’ve really stressed that and this week is no different.”

This report was produced in partnership with the Daily Herald. For related coverage, visit dailyherald.com/sports/prep