Neuqua Valley enjoyed a 2019 season that any team would take in a heartbeat.
It left the Wildcats wanting for more.
Neuqua, led by quarterback Mark Gronowski, went undefeated in the DuPage Valley Conference to win one of the state's most difficult leagues. Its only regular-season loss was perhaps the brightest star on its resume, a 50-48 barnburner to eventual Class 6A champion East St. Louis. It set up Neuqua as a contender for a deep run in Class 8A, but that was thwarted by a 38-22 second-round loss at Homewood-Flossmoor.
A strong senior class will dictate how Neuqua builds off of that.
"Doing what we were able to do will help this group going forward. They got a good taste of it," Neuqua coach Bill Ellinghaus said. "Nobody was happy with how the season ended. We felt like we had a team that could go far. We kind of ran into a little bit of a buzzsaw."
The Wildcats will need to lean on that senior class, with the smallest junior class – 18 signed up – that Ellinghaus has had at Neuqua.
Neuqua was cleared to start conditioning workouts on June 29, and from there will go four days a week from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m.
"We're a week or two slow to the party, most of the people have been doing conditioning already," Ellinghaus said. "But we know the kids who are serious about football have been working out on their own."
Head coach: Bill Ellinghaus (ninth season)
Last year's record: 9-2
Who's at quarterback?
Gronowski, now at South Dakota State, leaves big shoes to fill. He accounted for just under 2,400 yards of total offense and 27 touchdowns for an offense that averaged 35.1 points. Ellinghaus, though, is confident that senior Colin Blazek, whose grown three inches to 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, can step right in.
"We felt we had a strong quarterback behind an All-State kid coming in," Ellinghaus said. "He's done everything we've asked him to do, he's a tremendous athlete, a big strong kid. He didn't miss a rep on the JV team last year with our receivers on the cusp. We felt in practice that he was ready to go. Mark was just super dynamic, but we feel like Colin has grown."
The bigger question could be in front of Blazek, as senior Nolan LeBreck is the only returning starter on the offensive line.
"Four new linemen, that's something we're looking to rebuild and we have guys ready to go," Ellinghaus said. "We do so much RPOs (run-pass option) and spread guys out, though, and we have guys willing to stick their nose in there."
Players to Watch
Blazek's job will be a lot easier with a guy like Armani Moreno around. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior running back ran for 942 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior, and has offers from North Dakota, Western Illinois and Minnesota State. He could also play some defense.
"Armani makes every offense better," Ellinghaus said. "You give Armani the ball, our negative plays are very minimal. Between a quarterback not taking sacks and Armani, when you eliminate negative plays it puts your offense in a good spot."
Neuqua graduated linebacker Jack Belskis inside, but senior Trey Borske is back to solidify a Wildcats' defense that returns five starters. Borske, who has offers from Northern Michigan and Central Missouri, had 47 tackles, 36 solos and six for loss, five sacks and an interception, and could play anywhere – even at running back, alongside Moreno.
"He's an absolute terror on the defensive side of the ball," Ellinghaus said. "I could put him anywhere – offense, defense, secondary, linebacker, I could put him at defensive end and he'd be a terror. They [Borske and Moreno] are just great players. We may end up putting both in the backfield."
Garrett Stare, who had 23 catches for 318 yards and three TDs last fall, is the leading receiver back and Greg Teresky had two starts. Carter Sessa and Andre Cobb were both up with the varsity as sophomores. Safety Brian Shaffer is another back defensively.
Newcomers You Need to Know
Laine Jenkins, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound senior defensive end and tight end, was pulled up to varsity as a sophomore, but didn't play last year as a junior.
"He's a Division I recruit, an outstanding football player," Ellinghaus said. "It's good to see him back on the field."
Sean Larkin is graduated and now at Southern Illinois, and Neuqua will miss his playmaking ability and versatility – but keep an eye on little brother Grant Larkin, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound sophomore athlete.
"He's cut from the same cloth," Ellinghaus said.
Neuqua made a couple interesting additions to what shapes up to be a grind of a schedule. In Week 1 the Wildcats will play at Oswego in the programs' first meeting since 2002. Oswego, 9-2 last year, has won at least nine games in eight straight seasons. Week 2, Neuqua will play at Wheaton Warrenville South, a conference rival for three years until WW South left the DVC in 2018. WW South has since then made back-to-back playoff quarterfinal appearances.
"[Oswego coach Brian] Cooney does a great job over there, he's a friend of mine, we've gone against them in the summer. It's a nice close proximity, hopefully we can get some fans there," Ellinghaus said. "Wheaton South was open Week 2, we reached out to them, they said they would be willing to play. They're on an uptick now."
East St. Louis dropped its Week 3 game with Neuqua in February, and in the scramble Ellinghaus ended up adding a second game with district rival Waubonsie Valley. Neuqua plays at Waubonsie Week 3 and hosts the Warriors Week 6.
"It's not great, it is what it is, but knowing what we know now with the financing of travel and the pandemic, it may end up being a good move," Ellinghaus said.
An Early Take
Neuqua has made the playoffs in seven of Ellinghaus' eight seasons as head coach, and last year was the program's best since the 2013 team reached the quarterfinals.
Can they take it a step further?
The Wildcats figure to be a strong contender to repeat in the DVC. If they can navigate a tough schedule, they should be a force come playoff time.