The Loyola Academy football team was ready for prime time.
Opening their season on Sunday, Aug. 28, at Hoerster Field in Wilmette before a standing-room-only crowd and a national television audience on ESPN, the Ramblers put on a powerful performance to overwhelm perennial Ohio powerhouse St. Xavier of Cincinnati 44-20.
The game was even more lopsided than the score suggested. When the Bombers outscored Loyola 13-0 in the fourth quarter, their starters were playing against the Ramblers’ second and third stringers.
“I didn’t expect this,” Loyola coach John Holecek said at the half that ended with the Ramblers on top 34-7. “Defensively, we didn’t miss tackles and we didn’t give up any points. We’ve got a couple of new guys in our secondary and I was happy with how they played.”
After the Ramblers had taken a 14-0 first-quarter lead on a 15-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Jake Stearney to senior tight end Jack Parker, a 53-yard scoring run by sophomore Drew MacPherson and a pair of extra-point kicks by junior Michael Baker, St. Xavier got on the scoreboard early in the second quarter on senior Robert Houston’s 25-yard interception runback.
Led by Stearney’s passing, the Ramblers quickly perished the thought that they might be vulnerable to a counterattack. He threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Declan Forde and then pegged TD passes of 38 and 9 yards to senior receiver Spencer Leadbetter. Extra-point kicks by Baker followed the first two touchdowns.
With 19 seconds elapsed in the third quarter, junior running back Will Nimesheim broke away on a 70-yard touchdown run and Baker’s extra-point put the game on cruise control. The finishing touches were provided on a 23-yard field goal by Baker’s senior backup Athan Chiampas.
“It’s awesome we were able to get all of these big plays in Game 1,” said Stearney, who completed 15 of 19 passing attempts for 252 yards and ran three times for 19 more yards. “I trust my receivers. They ran their routes and we established the running game.”
The most effective receivers were Leadbetter (5 catches for 86 yards), Forde (4 for 94) and Nimesheim (3 for 46).
Forde has begun making up for lost time after missing all of last season because of a fracture in his lower back.
“I started doing (physical therapy) in January and I’m still doing PT,” he said. “My back felt good. I felt great to be back — my quarterback and I have been playing together since fourth grade — and it was great to be on ESPN.”
Spearheaded by senior center Braden Carlin, the offensive line gave Stearney outstanding protection and opened the holes that Nimesheim and MacPherson exploited. Nimesheim carried 10 times for 98 yards and MacPherson 8 times for 60 yards.
“I didn’t realize those guys were that fast,” Holecek said, recalling the breakaway touchdown jaunts by Nimesheim and MacPhearson.
The Loyola coach also lauded the performances of Forde, Leadbetter, Stearney, senior safety John McGuire, and the offensive and defensive linemen.
“We told our kids ‘This is a playoff game,’” Holecek said, stressing the significance of being on national television. “This is a keepsake game. It’s something you can always remember. Everything went our way and it wasn’t the right day for them.”
All of the players who were interviewed said they’d recorded the game and were going to watch it when they got home.
“It was a one of a kind game,” said Brooks Bahr, the 6-foot-6. 275-pound senior who rose to the occasion with his play at defensive end. “The energy for this game was awesome. The whole offseason we worked our butts off. There’s no better feeling than winning on ESPN.”
Consensus among the players was they were a bit anxious about being on national television when the game began but, according to Stearney: “Once we got the first play in the feeling was gone and we just focused on executing the game plan.”
It was a well-played game and neither team manifested any symptoms of ESPN stage fright. St. Xavier had two minor penalties totaling 10 yards and Loyola had only one minor infraction for minus 5. The Ramblers recovered their two fumbles, and the Bombers recovered their lone bobble. The only interception of the game was the one that produced St. Xavier’s first touchdown.
The visiting team’s most effective player was junior quarterback Jack O’Malley, who had 15 completions in 28 attempts for 145 yards and threw the fourth quarter touchdown passes that came against Loyola’s substitutes to seniors Tyler Nicholson and Eli Griessser on plays covering 21 and 10 yards.
The Ramblers made a powerful impression on St. Xavier coach Steve Specht, whose 2016 and 2020 teams were the Ohio Division I champions.
“They’re big, they’re physical and they’ve got good speed outside,” he said. “They played hard and fast. They’re a team that is very well-coached. I told coach Holecek after the game: ‘You’ve got a heck of a team — a really, really good football team.’
“That team is going to be a tough out this year.”
The loss was the second for St. Xavier, which dropped a 16-13 heartbreaker to another traditionally strong Ohio team, Lakota West, in its opener.
Next up for Loyola is a home game on Saturday (Sept. 3) against United Township of East Moline, a 31-21 loser at LaSalle-Peru in its opener on Friday, Aug. 26.
After the St. Xavier game a reporter asked Holecek if he thought the compelling conquest on ESPN would move the Ramblers up in the national rankings.
“National rankings are all nonsense,” he responded. “We want to keep getting better every game and then get really good and get rolling in the playoffs.”
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.