Neuqua Valley players Derrek Warkenthien (left) and Nolan Dean offer a hand to Naperville Central's Kevin Clifford after tackling him. | Vince Curletta/For Sun-Times Media
Neuqua Valley’s defense was dangerously vulnerable at times last season, but that year of experience might be just what the Wildcats needed to pursue their first state championship.
The last two Class 8A state champions, Mount Carmel and Naperville Central, were the last to end Neuqua Valley’s seasons, in the 2012 semis and 2013 quarterfinals, respectively.
“I expect our defense to be much better than last year,” senior linebacker Derrek Warkenthien said. “We have seven or eight returning who were juniors last year, so we were young. We’re light years from where we were last year. We’re older, much faster and quicker with our decisions.”
The Wildcats were dominant last fall, but some leaks in the defense were exposed. They only held two teams to single digits and allowed 20 or more points in all but three games.
“Last year we weren’t as trustworthy of each other,” Warkenthien said. “The biggest thing now is we have a full year under our belt and everyone knows their responsibilities.”
Neuqua Valley welcomes back several regulars on defense, including Warkenthien, Eli Tappin, Famus Hasty and Nathan Bailey. Linemen Tyler Bromer, Patrick Cadogan and Chris Rice will look to solidify a defensive line that was victimized a year ago.
“I believe we have everything to be a state champion,” Warkenthien said. “Our offense has a lot returning and our defense does. We’ve got another year together so if we put our minds to it, I think the sky is the limit.”
Indiana State recruit Broc Rutter returns at quarterback after putting up huge numbers a season ago. Rutter established several school records, including passing yards and touchdown passes in a single season, last fall. He won’t be able to look for Mike Dudek (Illinois) any longer, but several talented receivers should provide for a balanced attack.
“I think we have a lot more depth than we had last year,” Rutter said. “We should be able to spread it around and adjust to what our opponents are giving us.”
A veteran o-line, led by Jon Bylak, Tom Cwioc, Devin Eubanks and Hank Michalski will help pave the way for running backs Dom Muoghalu (31 carries, 150 yards, 0 TDs) and Aurora Christian transfer Kimani Mobley.
“We’ve got two different types of running backs so they can’t just key on the pass,” Rutter said. “We’ll be tough to guard. I think how we play all depends on who we’re playing and how we run the ball at the beginning of the game.”
The Wildcats have dominated the Upstate Eight Valley in recent years. Their last conference loss came Oct. 21, 2011. Both losses last year came against Naperville Central, which they’ll host in Week 2.
“Staying healthy and keeping guys fresh are going to be key,” Wildcats coach Bill Ellinghaus said. “We’ve got 93 guys out for the team so we’ve got some depth.”