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Neuqua Valley's Joey Rhattigan jumps to try and avoid a tackle during their state quarterfinal game against Waubonsie Valley at home on Saturday, November 10, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

Neuqua Valley had been here before, so at least it was familiar territory if also uncomfortable.

On Oct. 5, the Wildcats dug themselves into a hole against district rival Waubonsie Valley before rallying for an epic win in double overtime in front of a standing-room-only crowd at North Central College.

It was another packed house Saturday night at Neuqua Valley and the stakes were even higher. The Wildcats were looking for their first IHSA semifinal berth ever, while Waubonsie was seeking its first trip to the semis since 1992. Waubonsie again got off to a quick start, going up two touchdowns in the first quarter.

And one more time, Neuqua went into grinder mode to pull out a win, 23-20 on Ryan Mulhern’s 19-yard field goal with 6.9 seconds left.

Joey Rhattigan ran 41 times for 294 yards and three touchdowns for No. 6 Neuqua Valley (12-0), which plays Mount Carmel next week. His Waubonsie counterpart, Austin Guido, had 30 carries for 141 yards and one score.

“We knew it was going to be a remarkable game,” Rhattigan said. “We knew it was going to be a remarkable atmosphere and it sure was.”

Waubonsie, meanwhile, knew Neuqua was going to keep handing off to No. 36. But the No. 9 Warriors (10-2) couldn’t figure out how to slow him down.

“Rhattigan ran well,” Waubonsie coach Paul Murphy said. “He kept getting stronger and stronger as the game went on.”

Indeed: Rhattigan got 202 of his yards, and two of his touchdowns, after halftime on 27 carries.

“You come out in these big games and you start out a little excited and real high tempo,” said Rhattigan, who ran mostly off the right side behind J.P. Quinn and Jason Vandermyde. “All we had to do in the second half was calm down and focus a little more. We definitely did that.”

Ditto for Neuqua’s defense, which gave up 80- and 94-yard scoring drives on Waubonsie’s first two possessions. Dylan Warden’s 53-yard pass to Christian Gibbs set up Guido’s three-yard touchdown run and Demario Webb (eight carries, 74 yards) had an eight-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0 Waubonsie with 1:39 left in the first quarter.

“We made a bunch of mental errors [early],” Neuqua safety Spencer Donahue said. “We weren’t getting set up the right way. ... They came out and hit us in the mouth. We expected that. They’re a great team.”

Rhattigan’s five-yard touchdown run pulled Neuqua within 14-6 with 11:04 left in the second quarter and his 24-yard scoring run made it 14-12 with 9:24 remaining in the third. He gave Neuqua its first lead at 20-14 on a 14-yard touchdown run with 52 seconds remaining in the third.

Waubonsie responded with an eight-yard scoring pass from Warden (4-of-8, 83 yards) to Dan Waldron with 7:13 to play in the game.

The Wildcats’ winning drive started at their own 29 with 2:28 left.

Nine runs – seven of them by Rhattigan for 54 yards – got Neuqua to the Waubonsie two-yard line. After a spike to stop the clock, Mulhern kicked the game-winner.

“I could tell our kids were not going to be denied tonight,” Neuqua coach Bill Ellinghaus said. “This is a special group, it really is.”

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