Marist’s football team kept trying to ruin Loyola Academy’s homecoming but the Ramblers’ juniors and sophomores wouldn’t permit it.
Junior quarterback Jake Stearney and junior tight end Jack Parker played the best games of their high school careers and sophomore kicker Michael Baker, junior holder Ryan Craddock, junior backup quarterback Luke Collins and sophomore Will Nimesheim made significant contributions in clutch situations.
Because of their derring-do, the undefeated Ramblers celebrated homecoming with a hard-earned 33-21 victory over their 2019 nemesis on Saturday, Oct. 2 at Hoerster Field.
With superstar senior running back Marco Maldonado missing his second game because of a broken collarbone sustained at the end of the Brother Rice game and his talented understudy, Mike Regan, hindered by a knee injury suffered in the final minute of the Sept. 24 Fenwick game, Stearney was called on to spearhead the rushing attack in addition to triggering the passing game.
He responded by carrying 14 times for 154 yards and going on touchdown runs of 47 yards in the first quarter and 27 yards in the fourth quarter.
When Stearney took to the air, he completed 22 of 36 passes for 202 yards and collaborated with junior wide receiver Spencer Leadbetter on a 40-yard touchdown pass play in the second quarter.
“Our game plan going in was to spread them out,” Stearney said. “Our line gave me great holes up the middle (on runs). It was a relief having Mike Regan come back at practice Tuesday and say ‘I’m playing.’ The sophomore (Nimeseim) also did a good job (of relieving Regan). He’s going to be something special in the future.”
Stearney’s primary receiver was Parker, who’d caught only one pass for two yards in the previous five games. But against Marist he had six catches for 61 yards, both of which were team-highs.
“I’ve been working on my techniques and today I made some plays,” Parker said.
“If we lost on homecoming day, that definitely would not have been good.”
Like the 46-43 victory at Brother Rice and the 27-24 victory at Fenwick (on Baker’s 41-yard field goal into a gusty crosswind on the last play of the game), the Ramblers (6-0) found themselves in a precarious situation in the fourth quarter.
With 7:46 to play, Marist slashed its deficit to 26-21 when Ryan Sims got behind the secondary, caught a pass from Dontrell Jackson Jr. and took it to the end zone on a play covering 70 yards.
After making two first downs on their ensuing possession, the Ramblers were confronted with a fourth-and-8 situation at the Marist 49 and Baker then punted the ball out of bounds at the visitor’s 13.
The Loyola defense stiffened and on fourth-and-8 at the RedHawks’ 15, Jimmy Roder punted the ball out of bounds at their 32. Regan and Stearney each gained one yard on successive runs but on his rush the Loyola quarterback was shaken up and had to leave the contest.
Luke Collins replaced Stearney and threw an incompletion, creating a fourth-and-eight situation at the Marist 30.
But then Collins fired a 21-yard pass to senior Charlie Mahon and his only catch of the game and second of the season made it first-and-goal at the 9.
Three straight carries by Regan advanced the ball to the 2-yard line with fourth down upcoming and Coach John Holecek sent out Baker, apparently to attempt a field goal that would have given the Ramblers’ an eight-point lead but still would have left open the possibility that the RedHawks could tie the score at 29 in the final minute with a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
But instead of holding for the kick, Craddock took the snap from senior Eddie Dreher and ran with the football. When a would-be-tackler closed Craddock tossed the football to Baker, who took it to the end zone with 47 seconds to play, giving the Ramblers their 12-point margin of victory.
“I went out there thinking I would kick,” Baker said. “I didn’t know we were running the fake until Ryan told me the play.”
Following the touchdown, the poised sophomore added his third extra-point conversion of the game after field goals of 32 yards in the first quarter and 38 yards on the last play of the first half.
“Baker is a heck of an athlete,” Coach John Holecek said. “He has played a little at running back for the sophomores.
“We saw the opportunity (to try the fake field goal) with two good athletes out there — he and the holder, Ryan Craddock.”
Holecek also praised the performances of Stearney, Parker and Will Nimesheim in the triumph that stretched the Ramblers’ winning streak to 12 games, dating back to the unconventional spring season in which they won all six of their games. In the last spring game, they were 43-14 winners at Marist, avenging 2019 home field losses in both their final regular season game and again in the IHSA Class 8A quarter-finals.
“Jake did a tremendous job of picking the holes when he had the run option,” Holecek said of Stearney.
“Parker got open in the gaps and caught the ball really well. If you’re going to throw over the middle you need someone with good hands (to make the catches).
“It was nice to see Will Nimesheim have some good runs. He showed speed.”
Although Nimesheim didn’t figure in the scoring in his varsity debut, the sophomore accounted for 35 yards in eight carries and ran for two first downs when he gave Regan a breather in the third quarter.
After gaining 172 yards in 32 carries and catching 3 passes for 19 yards in his first career start against Fenwick, Regan was obviously hampered by the injury in this game. Nevertheless, he gained 40 yards in 17 rushes and caught 1 pass for 10 yards to play a supporting role in Stearney’s stellar offensive performance.
On defense, three linemen — junior Brooks Bahr and seniors Graham McCabe and Michael Williams — and a pair of senior linebackers — senior James Kreutz and Jamie McCabe — were in the forefront as the Ramblers threw the RedHawks for 53 yards when they carried the football and a -2 total in 21 rushing attempts.
“We did a great job of stopping the run,” said Holecek.
“But their receivers have incredible speed and their quarterback threw a couple of great balls.”
In addition to hurling the pass to Sims that produced the 70-yard TD in the fourth quarter, Jackson connected with Ak’Tavion Agee on an 80-yard scoring pass play in the first quarter.
The other touchdown for the RedHawks came on Brian Winstead’s 42-yard interception return that cut Loyola’s lead to 19-14 in the third quarter.