High school football: Lincoln-Way East survives Neuqua Valley’s late charge

Neuqua Valley put together a solid season despite losing three-year starting quarterback Mark Mennecke for five games with an injury. Mennecke, a dynamic running and passing threat, was back for the Wildcats’ second-round Class 8A playoff game against Lincoln-Way East on Friday.

His presence gave Neuqua Valley a puncher’s chance against one of the state’s heavyweight programs, but it wasn’t enough. The Griffins held on for a 17-14 win in Naperville after running back James Kwiecinski fell on the Wildcats’ onside kick attempt in the final minute.

Kwiecinski has been Lincoln-Way East’s reliable offensive threat all season. The senior had 25 carries for 125 yards. His 10-yard touchdown run with 2:31 left in the third quarter provided the winning margin.

The biggest play of the game came early. Griffins quarterback Braden Tischer connected with Jimmy Curtin for a 45-yard touchdown pass with 5:45 to play in the first quarter. Lincoln-Way East only completed three more passes the rest of the way, but the seed was planted.

“Obviously they have one of the best defenses in the state,” Griffins linebacker Jake Scianna said. “It ruins your morale really, as a defense, and it made us feel a little bit better. That’s a big play for sure.”

Scianna made a big play of his own, blocking a Neuqua Valley field goal attempt late in the second quarter.

“We came out with this one because we were the more disciplined team,” Scianna said. “There are still things we need to improve on but we are coming together.”

Tischer was 5-for-10 passing for 111 yards with one touchdown. Senior Jimmy Curtin had three catches for 84 yards.

“This was a tough draw,” Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar said. “They were every bit who we thought they were.”

With five minutes left the Griffins (11-0) led by 10 points. Mennecke was injured while sliding and left the game. Junior Ryan Mohler took over and on his second drive led the Wildcats (8-3) on a scoring drive. He connected with Grant Larkin on a 58-yard pass and then Carter Stare caught a 27-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds left.

But Lincoln-Way East recovered the onside kick, ending the threat.

“We have a bunch of guys here with huge hearts,” Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said. “They battled until the very end. We just feel three points short.”

Larkin had seven catches for 186 yards for the Wildcats. Mennecke was 13 of 24 passing for 193 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

“Shout out to [Mennecke] for playing through that ankle injury,” Scianna said. “He’s a great player, really mobile with a good arm.”

Mennecke’s standout athleticism and daring make him an intensely fun player to watch. But circumstances (covid shutdown and this year’s injury) have hampered his recruitment.

“The kid is a college football player,” Ellinghous said. “He can play with the best of them. He’s got a ton of arm and a ton of talent and he’s a fierce competitor. I don’t know why teams wouldn’t want to take a shot on him because he’s unbelievable.”

Lincoln-Way East will host the Warren vs. Andrew winner in the quarterfinals next weekend.

“We have to be better finishers,” Zvonar said. “We had a chance to shut the door. The offense has got to punch one in there in the fourth quarter and the defense has to keep them out. The onside hands team shouldn’t have had to go and save the game. But we are excited as heck to come back home in the quarterfinals.”

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