Neuqua Valley senior receiver Grant Larkin has a deep respect for his quarterback.
He knew the disappointment and pain that senior Mark Mennecke endured after suffering a foot injury in the second game of the season.
“He came back three times this year from an extremely painful injury that even professional players would have missed the whole season,” Larkin said.
An athletic, left-handed passer, Mennecke played a daring and improvisational style. His playmaking allowed the Wildcats offense to flourish.
“When he was in the game, he made a massive impact,” Larkin said.
The duo went out with a bang Friday night. Mennecke threw for 203 yards and Larkin made seven catches for 196 yards in 17th-seeded Neuqua Valley’s 17-14 loss against top-seeded Lincoln-Way East in a Class 8A second-round playoff game in Naperville.
“I’m really going to miss Mark,” Larkin said. “We have had a great connection over the last four years.”
The Wildcats (8-3) fought until the closing seconds. The Griffins (11-0) recovered an onside kick with 48 seconds remaining to secure the victory.
“We didn’t care about what our seed or number was because we knew that our record did not show how good we actually were,” Mennecke said. “We knew we could battle with anybody in the state. We just came up a little bit short.”
Mennecke completed 13 of 23 passes and connected with Larkin on a 46-yard touchdown that staked Neuqua Valley to a 7-0 lead.
“All week long, we just worked on timing,” Mennecke said. “I just wanted to get the ball off quickly. I didn’t want to hold the ball, and I think I did a very good job of that tonight.”
Mennecke said he felt like himself for the first time since the injury.
“I was feeling very confident about this game going into it,” he said. “My foot felt good, and I was just going to play my game.”
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Symbolic of Mennecke’s season, however, it ended prematurely. He was injured again when he took a hit while sliding with just over five minutes left.
Junior Ryan Mohler replaced him with the Wildcats trailing 17-7. His 58-yard pass to Larkin set up the final scoring play, a 27-yard pass to junior receiver Carter Stare with 51 seconds to go.
“As much as I love Mark, and he’s a heck of a quarterback, I feel the same way about Ryan,” Larkin said. “I’ve known Ryan since I was like 3 years old. Our families are close.
“He came this year, and he was 5-0 in games that he started. I knew when he came in, he’d be ready, and that play was a definite reflection of that.”
Despite its loss, Neuqua Valley had other accomplishments to recognize. The senior class won the DuPage Valley Conference title this season and reached the state quarterfinals a year ago.
“Our class came in, and we talked about winning a state championship,” Larkin said. “We created a heck of a bond over time.”
Patrick Z. McGavin is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.