Neuqua Valley falls just short vs. 11-0 LW East

If anything, Lincoln-Way East's gritty 17-14 victory over Neuqua Valley on Friday night impressed upon the Griffins how hard the Class 8A road will be the rest of the way.

The Griffins may be 11-0 and the No. 1 seed in their class, and they may enjoy the home turf next week against either Warren - their foe in the 2019 8A championship game - or Andrew, whom they've already defeated this year, but it won't be easy.

East had to work all the way to the finish, including putting its good-hands onside kick recovery team on the field with 51.7 seconds left after the Wildcats (8-3) just wouldn't go away.

"They're a heck of a second-round opponent," coach Rob Zvonar said. "Our emphasis now is in being better finishers. We had a chance in the second half to punch one in offensively and didn't, and we gave up two scores on defense that were a little suspect - we blew a coverage on both of them.

"Sometimes it's just about advancing."

The Wildcats started strong, going against the wind with an 80-yard first quarter scoring drive capped by senior Mark Mennecke's 46-yard touchdown pass to Division I-bound Grant Larkin, who beat J.T. Poynton at the 15 and scooted into the right corner of the end zone.

Poynton got his revenge later with an interception of Mennecke, who was making only his fifth start of the season thanks to a broken foot early in the season and then a too-quick return from it. But the senior showed tremendous poise against an East defense that sacked him twice and knocked him out of the game midway through the final quarter after an 11-yard rush in which he gave himself up and still was hit, helmet-to-helmet, by a diving East defender.

"It was a long battle with injuries; I wasn't there for my brothers," said Mennecke, who passed for 200 yards. "I don't know. It's just sad right now."

"Mark has such a strong arm, he missed a couple passes long because it's so strong," coach Bill Ellinghaus said. "He's an unbelievable talent."

The Griffins didn't get penalized for the hit on Mennecke, but the Wildcats did for complaining about the no call.

East seemed to have the game in hand after Jim Kwiecinski's 10-yard scoring run made it 17-7 with 2:31 left in the third quarter. But Neuqua, which ended up outgaining East 331-238, wasn't finished, even after Mennecke was sidelined.

The Wildcats rallied behind backup quarterback Ryan Mohler, a junior who started the games Mennecke could not. His 58-yard completion to Larkin helped set up a 27-yard touchdown pass to Carter Stare, cutting the gap to three points in the final minute.

"Our backups have stepped up for us all year long," Ellinghaus said as tearful players hugged around him. "Our team has big hearts."

It was 7-7 after East quarterback Braden Tischer hit Jimmy Curtin from the Neuqua 45 with a heave down the middle. At that point, the Griffins' defense began to take over, with the Wildcats making it only to the Lincoln-Way 22 on its next four drives. The Griffins took the lead on Carter Nair's 26-yard field goal against the wind with 6:22 left in the first half, capping a 46-yard drive that consumed 5:57.

"I was just hoping our defense would make a play to save the game for us," Tischer said of the finish. "We came out kind of flat, I thought. We just wouldn't finish, had penalties. A lot of things didn't go our way, but some things did and it showed on the scoreboard."

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