Neuqua Valley Nixes Stevenson As Patriots Lose Home Opener 28-21


Photo provided by Daily Herald.

Bradley Locker, Sports Editor

With the raucous “White Out” student section ready to cheer on the Patriots for their first game in Lincolnshire, Stevenson Athletic Director Tricia Betthauser honored several successful Patriot programs and sports teams during the traditional Night of Champions ceremony as members paraded around the track before kickoff. On Friday night, however—in its first game inside Stevenson Stadium—the Stevenson football team was not able to continue the note of Patriot prosperity and was defeated by the Neuqua Valley Wildcats 28-21.

Though phenomenal teams such as girls water polo—which has won the state championship for the last three years—and Allied basketball—which emerged with a 3rd place trophy in the IHSA Unified Basketball State Championships—were honored, the Patriots were outdueled and dropped to 0-2 in a game where both teams went toe-to-toe.

In the first quarter, Wildcat quarterback Mark Gronowski ’20 found receiver Sean Larkin ’20 for a 29-yard touchdown up the right side to give Neuqua a 7-0 advantage. However, Stevenson was able to rebound and counter the Wildcats’ punch with a Justin Hiller ’20 pass to Jordan Vincent ’20—a catch in the flat that Vincent ran in for a score.

The second quarter proved arguably the most eventful, as Wildcat running back Armani Moreno ’21 had a Saquon Barkley-esque dive over the top for his first of three rushing touchdowns. 

In a cataclysmic turn of events for the Patriots, star receiver Jayden McFadden ’21 incurred a big hit from Wildcat linebacker Jack Belskis ’20. McFadden left the game with the help of two Patriot personnel and never returned with a left ankle injury.

Despite losing his #1 target, Hiller remained poised and led Stevenson to its second touchdown via a JM Etienne ’20 10-yard run on a sweep play to the left.

The first half was knotted at 14-14, but the Wildcats propelled their second half after a shanked punt by Matt Spilotro ’21 set up Neuqua Valley near Stevenson’s five yard line. Three plays later, bruiser Moreno punched in the ball to give Neuqua a seven point lead.

In the epitome of a chess match, Hiller—and Stevenson—answered the call with a third quarter drive that included a 45-yard catch for Vincent—who totaled 137 receiving yards—and a touchdown run on a nifty quarterback draw by Stevenson’s signal caller.

The Wildcats once again retook the lead with 11:22 left in the fourth quarter on Moreno’s final touchdown run up the middle. This time around, however, Stevenson could not go stride-for-stride with Neuqua and had to punt.

Needing a stop on the subsequent Neuqua possession, the Patriot defense accepted the challenge and forced what looked like a punt. Much to the astonishment of Stevenson, however, Neuqua quarterback Gronowski—who had punted twice earlier in the matchup—dashed to his left and picked up a first down.

Despite the special teams blunder, things started to look up for the Patriots. Moreno slipped on a fourth & three run inside Patriot territory with under 3 minutes remaining—Hiller had one more shot to answer the call and tie the game.

On the ensuing drive, Stevenson receiver Tristan Moskovic ’21 coerced Wildcat safety Emanuel Rice ’20 into a holding call, momentarily easing Patriot fans’ anxieties. However, Hiller looked out of sorts in Stevenson’s last possession by missing a wide open Moskovic on 3rd & 2. With the game in the balance, Etienne failed to convert a fourth and two in a game of missed opportunities for new coach Brent Becker.

On both sides, penalties abounded as yellow flags from the sidelines continued to pour in. Neither quarterback dazzled with exceptional air attacks, as each totaled one interception—Gronowski was picked off by Jaden Mojica ’21, and a Hiller throw was snatched by Larkin to conclude to second half. Moreover, Hiller fumbled three times but luckily recovered each mishap—another testament to the motif of sloppy play.

The contest largely revolved around the individual matchup between Moreno and Etienne, with Moreno dominating with his physical play and 134 rushing yards.

Before the game, coach Bill Ellinghaus of Neuqua said he intended to stop Etienne at all costs, and he did just that. Though the Patriot workhorse posted over 200 yards in Stevenson’s win versus Neuqua Valley last season, he was held in check for only 43 yards this time around.

With a disappointing start to the season thus far, Coach Becker and the Patriots will look to right the ship with a victory at home against 1-1 Libertyville next Friday—ironically, who are also the Wildcats. Neuqua will play host to East St. Louis and attempt to extend its scalding start, as Gronowski and the Wildcats have demonstrated their dominance to the DuPage Valley Conference thus far.