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Neuqua Valley's Joey Rhattigan lays in the mud at the goal line with seconds left on the clock during their state quarterfinal game at Neuqua Valley High School on Saturday, November 10, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Bill Ellinghaus has been a member of Neuqua Valley’s coaching staff since 1999, including eight years as offensive coordinator under Bryan Wells, the man he replaced.
Two years ago, Wells was matter-of-fact about his program’s first-ever meeting with Mount Carmel in the second round of the Class 8A playoffs.
“What we’ve talked about with our kids is the fact that we’re playing this year’s Mount Carmel team,” Wells said back in 2010. “This is the only week we have to play them. We don’t have to play their history. We don’t have to play their tradition. We’re just playing them this week as a football team.”
Fast forward two years and Mount Carmel is returning to Naperville Saturday for the first time since earning a 21-14 overtime victory over Neuqua Valley on its way to a runner-up finish in Class 8A. Ellinghaus is approaching his team’s Class 8A state semifinal with the third-seeded Caravan on Saturday in similar fashion.
“Mount Carmel, obviously, has got a very rich tradition, but we’re not playing the tradition of Mount Carmel. We’re playing the 2012 Mount Carmel team,” Ellinghaus said on Monday.
The Caravan, owners of 10 state titles and 15 state championship game trips, are making the trek to Naperville to play a postseason game for just the third time ever when they face the Wildcats for the second time in three years.
“They did a great job (against us in 2010). They really did,” Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti said. “You can’t take that away from them and this year’s club, I mean, it’s not easy to be 12-0. It’s not easy to go through your regular season undefeated and they found a way to do that.”
Sitting at 11-1 and losing only to Loyola 30-27 back on Sept. 28, Mount Carmel has averaged 39.8 points on offense — utilizing its triple-option offense with senior quarterback Don Butkus and its two running backs, junior Matt Domer and senior Draco Smith quite well.
Lenti said both Domer and Smith have been dealing with some injuries this week and hadn’t practiced through Wednesday, but he expects to have both of them available Saturday night.
Domer enters the game with 1,144 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns for the Caravan while the Northern Illinois-bound Smith and Butkus have combined to run for 1,185 yards and 22 touchdowns heading into this weekend’s play.
Butkus, the great nephew of Chicago Bears’ Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, has also done some damage with his arm, having thrown for 944 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Domer totaled 96 yards and two touchdowns on the ground against Lyons last week as the Caravan broke a 10-10 halftime tie with a 21-point third quarter, highlighted by turning two turnovers into touchdowns. Mount Carmel cruised to a 45-10 victory over the 15th-seeded Lions to reach the 21st state semifinal in program history.
Facing a team that runs some form of option offense for a third straight week, Ellinghaus pointed out the Caravan’s offensive versatility.
“What impresses me the most is that they’re somewhat balanced in their attack,” he said. “They do everything well. They count. They run the dive. The quarterback keeps it and they run pitch. They also drop back and throw the ball a little bit. So a lot of those option teams that are triple-option teams, but you can really only rely on one. They do a job of spreading the wealth over there.”
Neuqua Valley is making its first state semifinal appearance in program history. Overcoming a 14-0 deficit to Waubonsie Valley amid sloppy field conditions last week, Neuqua Valley (12-0) recovered behind its all-state running back Joey Rhattigan.
The Wildcats’ passing game slowed by the bad field conditions, with quarterback Dylan Andrew completing only one pass for four yards, Rhattigan ran for 292 yards and three touchdowns as they pinned a second defeat on Waubonsie Valley this season with a 23-20 victory.
“Yeah, that’s the thing is their offensive line — those guys, I used to use the term ‘they block out the sun’. They really do (a nice job blocking up front) and Joey Rhattigan, those guys don’t come around very often,” Lenti said of the Wildcats’ star running back, who has run for 2,149 rushing yards and 33 TDs this season. “They’re pretty special players.”
With an offense averaging 43.3 points, the Wildcats can put points on the board either with Rhattigan running or Andrew throwing.
Earning two victories over both Naperville North and Waubonsie Valley, along with a victory over Naperville Central, Neuqua Valley has proven it can play with anyone.
There’s no reason to think Saturday won’t be different, even if it’s Mount Carmel.
“With Mount Carmel coming to town, you know they’re gonna be very well-coached, you know that they’re gonna do the same things that they’ve been doing all year long,” Ellinghaus said. “They’re not gonna change that. They’re a very, very good football team. But I believe that we’re a very, very good football team, as well.”