Lincoln-Way East survives Neuqua Valley’s late charge

Mark Mennecke gave Neuqua Valley a puncher’s chance against one of the state’s heavyweight programs, but it wasn’t enough.

SHARE Lincoln-Way East survives Neuqua Valley’s late charge
Lincoln-Way East’s James Kwiecinski (2) protects the ball as he runs straight ahead, dragging Neuqua Valley’s Cole Dutkovich (2) and Peyton Kuhl (9).

Lincoln-Way East’s James Kwiecinski (2) protects the ball as he runs straight ahead, dragging Neuqua Valley’s Cole Dutkovich (2) and Peyton Kuhl (9).

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

Neuqua Valley put together a solid season, despite losing three-year starting quarterback Mark Mennecke for five games with an injury.

Mennecke, a dynamic running and passing threat, was back for the Wildcats’ second-round Class 8A playoff game Friday against Lincoln-Way East in Naperville.

His presence gave Neuqua Valley a puncher’s chance against one of the state’s heavyweight programs, but it wasn’t enough. The Griffins held on for a 17-14 victory after running back James Kwiecinski fell on the Wildcats’ onside kick in the last minute.

Kwiecinski has been Lincoln-Way East’s reliable offensive threat all season. He had 25 carries for 125 yards, and his 10-yard touchdown run with 2:31 left in the third quarter gave the Griffins a 17-7 lead.

The biggest play of the game, however, came early. Lincoln-Way East quarterback Braden Tischer connected with Jimmy Curtin on a 45-yard touchdown pass with 5:45 left in the first quarter. The Griffins completed only three more passes the rest of the way, but the seed was planted.

‘‘Obviously, they have one of the best defenses in the state,’’ Lincoln-Way East linebacker Jake Scianna said of Neuqua Valley. ‘‘It ruins your morale, really, as a defense, and it made us feel a little bit better. That’s a big play, for sure.”

Scianna made a big play of his own, blocking a field-goal attempt by the Wildcats late in the second quarter.

‘‘We came out with this one because we were the more disciplined team,’’ Scianna said. ‘‘There are still things we need to improve on, but we are coming together.’’

Tischer was 5-for-10 for 111 yards with a touchdown, and Curtin had three catches for 84 yards.

‘‘This was a tough draw,’’ Griffins coach Rob Zvonar said. ‘‘They were every bit who we thought they were.’’

With five minutes left, Lincoln-Way East (11-0) led by 10 points. Mennecke was injured while sliding and left the game. Ryan Mohler took over and led Neuqua Valley (8-3) on a scoring drive on his second possession. He connected with Grant Larkin on a 58-yard pass, then Carter Stare caught a 27-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds left.

But the Griffins recovered the onside kick, ending the threat.

‘‘We have a bunch of guys here with huge hearts,’’ Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said. ‘‘They battled until the very end. We just fell three points short.’’

Larkin had seven catches for 186 yards for the Wildcats. Mennecke was 13-for-24 for 193 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

‘‘Shout-out to [Mennecke] for playing through that ankle injury,’’ Scianna said. ‘‘He’s a great player, really mobile with a good arm.’’

Mennecke’s standout athleticism and daring make him a fun player to watch. But circumstances, including the COVID shutdown and his injury this season, have hampered his recruitment.

‘‘The kid is a college football player,’’ Ellinghaus said. ‘‘He can play with the best of them. He’s got a ton of arm and a ton of talent, and he’s a fierce competitor. I don’t know why teams wouldn’t want to take a shot on him because he’s unbelievable.’’

Lincoln-Way East will host the winner of the game between Warren and Andrew in the quarterfinals next weekend.

‘‘We have to be better finishers,’’ Zvonar said. ‘‘We had a chance to shut the door. The offense has got to punch one in there in the fourth quarter, and the defense has to keep them out.

‘‘The onside hands team shouldn’t have had to go and save the game. But we are excited as heck to come back home in the quarterfinals.’’

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