NORMAL — The final blow in a cavalcade of momentum-shifting plays was struck by Neuqua Valley High School on Friday in a scintillating nonconference football game.
Brandt Stare’s 76-yard kickoff return and Will Chevalier’s two-point conversion run with 24 seconds left lifted the Wildcats to a 36-35 victory over Normal Community.
The Ironmen had taken the lead when Connor Lay scooted 35 yards down the right sideline into the end zone with a sweep at the 37-second mark.
“It is a tough way to finish. You knew it was going to happen to somebody. We were just hoping it wasn’t us,” said NCHS coach Jason Drengwitz. “From our standpoint, I couldn’t be prouder of how our kids played.”
Ranked sixth in Class 7A, the Ironmen dropped to 3-1 as their streak of 18 straight regular-season victories ended.
“Bouncing back, coming back, making stops, making plays, we handled the adversity well in the type of game we haven’t got to play in very often in the regular season,” Drengwitz said.
Class 8A Neuqua Valley (2-2) assumed a 28-21 lead with 5:40 remaining on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Mark Gronowski to Stare. The Wildcats’ drive was kept alive by two NCHS penalties on third down and long yardage.
A 37-yard pass from Daylen Boddie to Dishon Hall set up a 1-yard Jake Hileman touchdown plunge at the 3:20 mark. The fourth of five Camron Hinman extra point kicks tied the game at 28-all.
Myles Doggan broke up a third down Neuqua Valley pass and the Wildcats punted it back to the Ironmen, who took over at their own 43 with 2:27 left.
Boddie converted fourth-and-2 with a 3-yard toss to Lay before Lay broke free for what appeared to be the game-winning score.
But Stare chased down the bouncing ensuing kickoff and found a clear path to the right sideline for a touchdown.
After two Wildcat timeouts and one called by NCHS, Chevalier took a pitch from Gronowski and was hit at the 2-yard line but still bulled in for the deciding two-point conversion.
“We’re very disappointed. But in the long haul it’s a game that makes us a better team offensively, defensively and special teams,” said Drengwitz. “Neuqua is battle tested. All the games they play are tough games.
"We could have got off the field a couple times on third down and had a couple penalties here and there. But offensively we turned the ball over twice going in to score. We could have probably put up another 14 points to help them.”
The Ironmen outgained the Wildcats, 501-314, in total offense. Boddie completed 9 of 15 for 188 yards and was intercepted twice. The NCHS quarterback also rushed for 154 yards on 18 carries, while Lay chipped in 85 yards on the ground and Hileman 60.
Gronowski, who at crucial times was as elusive as Boddie, connected on 18 of 27 passes for 206 yards and added 41 yards rushing.