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Neuqua Valley's Joey Rhattigan breaks a long run Friday at Metea Valley. Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media
There’s little doubt that within District 204, the rivalry between Waubonsie Valley and Neuqua Valley receives intense attention when it comes around each fall.
There’s also little doubt that within Naperville prep football circles, the rivalry between Waubonsie and Neuqua has taken a back seat to the fierce rivalry that the two Naperville schools, Naperville Central and Naperville North, have shared throughout their histories.
But perhaps that will start to change Friday night at North Central College’s Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
Toting identical 6-0 records, state-ranked Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley engage one another in undoubtedly the biggest game in their 14-year rivalry, which dates back to 1999. The Wildcats come in at No. 6 and the Warriors No. 7 in the Associated Press Class 8A poll. The Sun-Times’ Super 25 puts Neuqua at No. 10 and Waubonsie at No. 14.
“This is what everybody wants, right?” Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said.
Both the Wildcats and the Warriors feature explosive offenses to go along with defenses that continually put their offenses in prime position to pile up points.
Led by three seniors — quarterback Dylan Warden, running back Austin Guido and Wisconsin-bound tight end Troy Fumagalli — Waubonsie Valley (6-0, 3-0 Upstate Eight Valley) is averaging 41.2 points a game.
Guido has spearheaded the Warriors’ offense by running for 1,240 yards and 20 touchdowns, while Warden has accounted for 10 total touchdowns and will provide quite the test for a Neuqua Valley defense surrendering 16.7 points per game.
“They’re a scary offense. But we feel good about our defense, as well,” Ellinghaus said. “It should be a very good football game. We think we know what they’re gonna do. There’s not a lot of secrets there. They know what we’re gonna do. It should be fun to watch the kids go out there and play.”
While much attention has been paid to the season Guido has been enjoying, Neuqua Valley (6-0, 3-0 Upstate Eight Valley) features a diverse offense of its own that has put up even more points on average — 44.5 — than Waubonsie Valley’s offense.
As with Guido with the Warriors, the Wildcats’ offense is led by a potential all-stater at running back in senior Joey Rhattigan.
Through six games, Rhattigan has run for 889 yards and 14 touchdowns and has also returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns, while senior quarterback Dylan Andrew has been efficient in throwing for 678 yards and eight TDs — six of which have gone to junior Mike Dudek.
“Last year, Rhattigan got open against us in the open field, had a big, long touchdown run, and so that’s what you try and prevent on defense,” Waubonsie Valley coach Paul Murphy said. “You try to prevent those big plays. We try to make them earn every yard that they get and make them go the long field and don’t give them any short fields.”
In Waubonsie Valley’s 27-21 overtime victory over Neuqua Valley last year, its first in the rivalry since 2008, Rhattigan ran for 241 yards and three touchdowns. His last two TDs came in the fourth quarter and gave the Wildcats a 21-14 lead with about five minutes remaining in regulation.
However a pair of Warden TD runs, including the game-winner in overtime, prevented the Wildcats from tightening their stranglehold on the series, which has seen the Wildcats win nine of 13 all-time meetings.
But it’s the short fourth down Rhattigan failed to convert and that found him denied at the Waubonsie Valley one-yard line in overtime prior to Warden’s game-winner that has him hoping to make amends Friday night.
“As a team, I think that we’re motivated to play Waubonsie, but for me personally, I was stopped 4th-and-2,” Rhattigan said. “So that, personally, just sets the fire for me. I want to get after it just as bad as my team does and I think we’re gonna do just that.”
The respective coaching staffs realize the hype and anticipation has been growing as both teams keep piling up victories.
Now that the game is finally at hand this week, both coaching staffs are trying to guard against making Friday night’s game bigger than it is.
“That’s why I’m approaching and our staff’s approaching it the way we are: it’s not the end-all, it’s not the Super Bowl. It’s not the last game,” Murphy said. “We’re not in the state championship. It’s a big game. It’s gonna be a big crowd. It’s gonna be a great atmosphere and we’ve gotta approach like we’ve approached every game so far. It’s one game at a time. It’s a great measuring stick to see where we’re at. It’s a great measuring stick for them to see where they’re at. I think it’s no more than that.”
Murphy’s first-year counterpart, Ellinghaus, agrees with that assessment while elaborating on why he thinks Neuqua Valley has enjoyed so much success in the rivalry, which has seen Neuqua Valley’s last seven victories in the series come by an average of 25.6 points.
“I think one of the reasons why is because we really approach this game like any other opponent. We approach it just like any other opponent,” he said. “We know all the hype. We know that there’s a lot of things, circumstances around it because we’re sister schools or because we’re in the same (school) district that, you know, it naturally gets hyped more.
“But I think because we approach this very much like another week and go after it that way, I think is why probably we’ve been able to play extremely well (against Waubonsie Valley). We try very hard not to get caught up in all the extra stuff surrounding the game.”