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Neuqua Valley's Joey Rhattigan has 30 touchdowns this season. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Some might wonder how this season could get any better for Joey Rhattigan and Neuqua Valley.
The unbeaten Wildcats have a school-record 11 wins and are in the IHSA quarterfinals for the first time in school history. Rhattigan, Neuqua’s workhorse back, is a big reason for Neuqua’s success, having run for 1,855 yards and 30 touchdowns.
But the senior wants more.
“I wouldn’t say [it’s a] dream season till we win state,” Rhattigan said. “That’s when the dream comes true.”
Still, there’s no doubt Friday night’s Class 8A matchup with defending state champ
Bolingbrook was the stuff dreams are made of. Rhattigan ran 26 times for 341 yards and five touchdowns as Neuqua rallied from a five-point deficit in the final 8:03 to win 44-33. For that effort, he’s the Sun-Times Athlete of the Week.
“I was pretty amazed at my contribution to the team,” said Rhattigan, whose yardage total was a personal best.
Bill Ellinghaus, in his first year as the Wildcats’ head coach after a stint as an assistant, knows better than to be amazed by anything Rhattigan does. That includes what he does off the field, where he carries a 4.0 grade-point average and scored 31 on the ACT.
“This year he’s been ridiculous,” Ellinghaus said. “Anything we’ve asked him to do, he’s been able to do.”
The 6-foot, 201-pounder has seen his role grow during a three-year varsity career. After playing fullback as a sophomore when his older brother T.J. was Neuqua’s featured back, Joey started getting more carries last season when T.J. went off to Penn State.
“My brother has been a huge influence on me,” Rhattigan said. “Not just my brother but my whole family. Obviously, we’re a football family (younger brother Jon, an eighth grader, is a linebacker and running back). We love to play the game.”
Ellinghaus loves having Rhattigan on his side.
“He’s fast enough to break away,” the coach said. “Because he’s so powerful, teams want to stack the box. As soon as he gets to that next level, he’s off to the races.”
Both sides of Rhattigan’s game, the power and the speed, were on display late against Bolingbrook. First, he dragged several Raiders into the end zone on a five-yard touchdown run that put Neuqua up 36-33.
Then came the play that, in Rhattigan’s mind, defined the game. “When [teammate] Dennis Thurow grabbed that interception, that was when I relaxed a little bit,” Rhattigan said.
But not so much that he didn’t have one more highlight-reel play left: a 53-yard touchdown run that turned what seemed like nothing into something and iced the win.
“That last touchdown run was the best high school touchdown run I’ve ever seen,” Ellinghaus said. “We just needed one first down. He literally broke seven tackles.”
“Basically, I was just trying to get the first down,” Rhattigan said. “[Then] I broke it to green grass.”
And the Wildcats were another step along the playoff road.