Mark Gronowski hoping to lead Neuqua Valley on deep playoff run

The Wildcats are motivated after a 2018 letdown in the playoffs.

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Neuqua Valley’s Mark Gronowski (7) carries the ball against Waubonsie Valley,

Neuqua Valley’s Mark Gronowski (7) carries the ball against Waubonsie Valley,

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

If playing quarterback seems to come naturally to Mark Gronowski, it’s no surprise.

The Neuqua Valley senior started lining up behind center as a first-grader with the St. Raphael Rams. He’s been doing it ever since, moving on to the Naperville Chargers youth program and then to the Wildcats.

So Gronowski has experience on his side, and also genetics — his dad Ray was the quarterback and a captain for Mount Carmel’s first state championship team in 1980 before going on to play at Drake.

”He’s helped me a lot,” Gronowski said of his father. “He was the quarterback coach for me all throughout my middle school days and grammar school days. He’s helped me develop how to throw, my reads ... “

The bond between father and son has been strong throughout. But Gronowski notes, with a smile, that the dynamic isn’t the same as it was when he was 6 years old.

”As I started getting older, into my teenage years, it was natural to get into some arguments,” Gronowski said. “But on the field, I treat him as a coach. Then off the field, it’s different.”

The coaching stuck, in any case. Gronowski has been a breakout star in his second season as starter for the DuPage Valley Conference champs, capable of making plays with his arm or his legs.

The latter is a new wrinkle for the 6-3, 205-pounder, a South Dakota State commit who is still listed as a pro-style quarterback on some recruiting sites.

”We’ve given him a ton of freedom to do RPOs (run-pass options) this year,” Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said. “Last year, we had a couple RPOs. This year, we’ve probably got six different RPOs we run with him and he’s making great choices.”

By making those good decisions, Gronowski has earned more and more freedom.

”Last year we hardly ran him at all,” Ellinghaus said. “This year, he spent a lot of time in the weight room. He’s a big, strong, physical kid.”

That means besides the option runs, the Wildcats’ playbook also includes some power running plays for Gronowski. They’ve been successful not just in gaining yards, but also boosting his adrenaline.

”Sometimes when he gets going (as a runner), that actually gets him jacked up and gets him right in the flow of whatever we’re doing,” Ellinghaus said. 

The fire in Gronowski’s belly also comes from the memory of how 2018 ended for the Wildcats: a 14-3 opening-round loss to Warren in the Class 8A playoffs.

”We felt determined after what happened last season,” Gronowski said. “We came in second in the DVC and lost in the first round of playoffs. ... It was a heartbreaker out there. They had a great defense (but) we didn’t play our style of game. We just didn’t come out as physical as we should have and it showed on offense and defense.”

So Gronowski and his teammates went to work in the weight room, focused on making sure they would not face that issue again.

Now they’re ready to embark on what they hope will be a playoff run like the 2012 and ‘13 Neuqua teams, which reached the 8A semifinals and quarterfinals respectively.

It starts Saturday night when the IHSA unveils this year’s playoff brackets. The Wildcats will open against Conant and then could possibly face highly-regarded Homewood-Flossmoor with top-ranked Lincoln-Way East likely waiting in the quarterfinals.

”I’m really excited,” Gronowski said. “I’ve already been looking and the rankings and everything, trying to figure it out.”

And as his mastery of the quarterback position suggests, Gronowski has a knack for figuring things out.

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