When Loyola Academy played Downers Grove South in the opening round of the ISHA Class 8A playoffs on Saturday, Oct. 30, at Hoerster Field it was their first meeting since 1993 when the Ramblers were 7-0 winners for their revered late coach John Hoerster in the IHSA Class 6A state championship game.
This time they won in a landslide.
Getting off to an auspicious start in their quest for their third state title in the 16 years that John Holecek has been their coach, the top-seeded Ramblers activated the running clock by scoring their last touchdown with 1:41 to go in the third quarter and went on to bury the 32nd-seeded Mustangs 44-0.
Next up for the Ramblers (10-0) is a second round game on Saturday, Nov. 6 at 1 p.m. at 17th-seeded Naperville Central (7-3), a 28-16 winner over No. 16 seed Naperville North on Friday night, Oct. 29.
“We have a heck of a challenge. It’s going to take a lot to beat Central at Central,” Holecek said.
In critiquing the lopsided game with Downers Grove South (5-5), he said. “Offensively and defensively we did what we had to do — tighten down in the red zone on defense and convert most of the time on offense.
“We talked about not making mistakes in the playoffs but we did have some, especially in the kicking game. “
The mistakes in the kicking game — a blocked extra point after the first touchdown and a bad snap that spawned an unsuccessful conversion attempt following the third touchdown — proved to be inconsequential as Loyola extended its winning streak that began during the COVID-necessitated spring season to 16 games. (Loyola’s last loss was to Marist in the quarterfinals of the 2019 playoffs.)
In a mismatch in which they never had to punt, the Ramblers amassed 359 net yards to 156 for the Mustangs and had 19 first downs to the defeated’s 7.
The onslaught began at the outset. After receiving the opening kickoff, Downers Grove South lost two yards in three plays from the line of scrimmage and was forced to punt.
The punt rolled dead at the Mustangs’ 40-yard line and from there it took the Ramblers only five plays to reach the end zone. Mike Regan’s running accounted for 30 of the yards and he got the touchdown from two yards out.
On Downers Grove South’s next possession, Quinn Nimesheim intercepted a third-down pass and ran it back 16 yards to the Mustangs’ 5. Regan took it from there — carrying for three yards, then one and then one again to get his second touchdown.
In a successful attempt to repair the scoreboard damage from the blocked extra point following the first TD, Jake Stearney passed to Charlie Mahon for the two-point conversion.
Loyola extended its lead to 23 points in the second quarter on a 6-yard touchdown run by Regan’s backup, Kyan Gibbs, and Mike Baker’s 26-yard field goal.
Then, in the third quarter, Stearney teamed with Spencer Leadbetter and Danny Collins on touchdown passes of 36 and 12 yards, respectively, Gibbs ran 11 yards for his second touchdown, and Baker kicked three extra points.
A fumble recovery by linebacker Sam Rushin at the Mustangs’ 12 set up the Stearney-to-Collins scoring pass on the next play.
“They couldn’t get much out of their running game, (Quinn) Nimesheim made the big interception and they had the fumble,” Rushin said. “We kept getting good field position.”
Loyola gave the Mustangs star running back Deon Davis a hard time for most of the game and he netted only 52 yards in 20 rushing attempts.
DGS’s only scoring threat came in the second quarter when they drove to the Ramblers’ 2 but that drive was thwarted when quarterback Ryan Dawson was sacked by Graham McCabe in a fourth-and-goal situation. Taking over on their 12, the Ramblers then drove 89 yards in 11 plays for their third touchdown.
Spearheading the Ramblers’ attack were Stearney, with 15 completions in 19 attempts for 184 yards and two scrambles for 33 yards rushing, and Regan, who ran 16 times for 108 yards and got 16 additional yards on a pass reception.
Regan took over as the Ramblers primary running back after their senior superstar Marco Maldonado (who had netted 598 yards in 75 carries and scored 12 touchdowns) sustained a broken collarbone at the end of the fourth game of the season at Brother Rice in which he set a single game school rushing record.
But in the closing minute of the next game at Fenwick, Regan sustained a knee injury that hindered him the following game and then sidelined him until the last regular season contest at Mount Carmel.
“Today I felt 100 percent,” the senior said. “The offensive line opened huge holes for me.
“It helps that we have other dudes who can step up when some of us get injured. Kyan Gibbs is very strong and really fast. With a little bit more confidence he’s going to be really good next year.”
Stearney, meanwhile, lauded Saturday’s performances by two other members of the class of 2023, tight ends Jack Fitzgerald (3 catches, 32 yards) and Jack Parker (2 catches, 22 yards).
“You’ll see a lot from those two big juniors in the future,” the junior quarterback predicted.
“Going into the season with all the graduation losses there were a lot of questions on how we’d do this year. I think we’ve shown what we are capable of.
“Now what we have to do is clean up the stuff we did badly today and do what we have to do at Naperville Central.”
Earlier in the week the Chicago Catholic League announced its postseason Blue Division awards and Loyola swept the top honors. Holecek was honored as Coach of the Year, Stearney was chosen Offensive Player of the Year and senior linebacker James Kreutz was selected Defensive Player of the Year.
Joining Stearney and Kreutz as members of the All-Division team were Maldonado, senior offensive linemen Will Livingston and John Michael Talanges, senior linebacker Holden Quinn, senior defensive lineman Michael Williams, and junior defensive lineman Brooks Bahr.
Neil Milbert was a staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 40 years, covering college (Northwestern, Illinois, UIC, Loyola) and professional (Chicago Blackhawks, Bulls, horse racing, more) sports during that time. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on a Tribune travel investigation and has covered Loyola Academy football since 2011.