Neuqua Valley put together a solid season, despite losing three-year quarterback Mark Mennecke for five games with an injury.

Mennecke, a potent running and passing threat, was back in the Wildcats’ Class 8A second-round playoff game Friday against Lincoln-Way East in Naperville.

His presence gave Neuqua Valley a shot against one of the state’s top programs, but it wasn’t enough. The Griffins held on for a 17-14 victory after running back James Kwiecinski crashed into the Wildcats’ sideline in the final minute.

Kwiecinski has been Lincoln-Way East’s offensive threat all season. He had 25 carries for 125 yards, and his 10-yard touchdown run with 2:31 left in the third quarter gave the Griffins a 17-7 lead.

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

“They obviously have one of the best defenses in the state,” Lincoln-Way East linebacker Jake Scianna said of Neuqua Valley. ”It breaks your morale, of course, as a defense, and it made us feel better. That’s a big game, of course. ”

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

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

Tischer was 5-for-10 for 111 yards with a touchdown, and Curtin had three catches for 84 yards.

“This was a tough game,” Griffins coach Rob Zvonar said. ”It was every bit the part we thought it would be.”

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

But the Griffins recovered the onside kick, ending the threat.

“We have a group of guys here with big hearts,” Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said. ”They fought to the end. We just fell by three points.”

Larkin had seven catches for 186 yards for the Wildcats. Mennecke was 13-for-24 for 193 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

” Shout out to [Mennecke] for playing with that ankle injury,” Scianna said. ”He’s a good player, moves well with a good arm.”

Mennecke’s outstanding athleticism and daring make him a fun player to watch. But circumstances, including the COVID-19 shutdown and his injury this year, have hindered his hiring.

“The kid is a college football player,” Ellinghaus said. ”He can play with the best of them. He has tons of arm and a lot of talent, and is a fierce competitor. I don’t know why teams don’t want to shoot him because he’s unbelievable.”

Lincoln-Way East will host the winner of the game between Warren and Andrew in the quarterfinals next week.

“We have to be better scorers,” Zvonar said. ”We had a chance to close the door. The offense has to hit one there in the fourth quarter, and the defense has to stop them.

”The team on the sidelines should not have gone to save the game. But we are happy to return home in the quarter.”

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