After riding down Easy Street on cruise control for five straight weeks, the Loyola Academy Ramblers found themselves on a hazardous uphill stretch of road en route to their sixth straight victory Friday night, Sept. 30, on the far South Side.
An indication that this was going to be a difficult struggle came at the outset when the Marist RedHawks halted a 17-play Loyola drive at their 33-yard line and then went down the field in 10 plays to get the first touchdown of the night.
It was the first time this season that the Ramblers had trailed and the first time they had been scored on in the first quarter. In their previous games they’d scored a combined total of 90 unanswered points in the opening 12 minutes.
“Overall, great team win,” was coach John Holecek’s assessment of his team’s hard-earned 28-17 triumph in a clash of 2021 IHSA Class 8A semifinalists. “We knew this was going to be a challenge. Their record (now 3-3) doesn’t show how good they are.
“I love that we fought back after facing a seven-point deficit for the first time. Then, our defense was able to make the plays we needed to put this team away.”
Senior quarterback Ryan Sims (20 completions in in 33 attempts for 268 yards) and senior wide receiver Dermot Smyth (9 catches for 92 yards) were constant threats for Marist.
They collaborated on a 10-yard play for the first TD with 3:27 elapsed and Smyth’s 38-yard pass to senior wide receiver Nolan Baudo prefaced the 1-yard run by junior Marc Coy and extra point kick by junior Kamil Kokot that enabled the RedHawks to tie the score at 14 with 2 1/2 minutes elapsed in the second half.
Smyth also was Marist’s only productive runner, netting 54 of his team’s 57 yards in 10 carries.
Although the Ramblers relied on senior Jake Stearney’s passing (16 completions in 22 throws for 183 yards and all 4 touchdowns), junior Will Nimesheim (23 carries for 130 yards) gave them the added dimension of a ground game.
Loyola got on the scoreboard approaching the midway point in the second quarter on Stearney’s 2-yard pass to senior tight end Jack Fitzgerald in the end zone, climaxing a 73-yard drive.
With 37 seconds to play in the half, the Ramblers took the lead on a 6-yard pass to senior wide receiver Spencer Leadbetter, ending a 70-yard drive that began when they held counterattacking Marist on downs.
The RedHawks started the second half by driving 80 yards for the game-tying TD but the Ramblers immediately retaliated with an 80-yard drive of their own that ended with Nimesheim making a tough catch of a 23-yard pass from Stearney in the left corner of the end zone.
Seemingly undaunted Marist advanced to the Loyola 16-yard line where on fourth down coach Ron Dawczak called on Kokot to kick a 33-yard field goal that shaved Loyola’s lead to 21-17
Going into the fourth quarter, the outcome seemed uncertain and the RedHawks looked like they were in a position to reclaim the lead when they drove to the Loyola 26.
In a fourth-and-9 situation, Smyth faded to pass but he was thrown for a 6-yard loss by senior defensive end Brooks Bahr and junior linebacker Ethan Hogg.
“We have a lot of chemistry off the field and it translates on the field,” Bahr said of Hogg. “We knew we had to make a big play. Ethan got in there first and I got in after him. It was a game-changer. We got the offense back on the field.”
Loyola parlayed the clutch stop into an insurance touchdown that came when Forde got behind the secondary, pulled down Stearney’s pass and took it to the end zone on a play covering 51 yards.
Forde credited Tyler Vradenburg, the Ramblers assistant coach and offensive coordinator, for detecting the vulnerability of the hard-charging Marist safety that made it possible for he and Stearney to make the big plays on offense.
Stearney’s synopsiss: “Great coaching, great receiving, great game.”
“It was a great challenge down to the end,” Forde said.
Stearney’s four touchdown passes gave the All-State candidate 22 for the season, and Forde’s scoring receptions increased his team-high season total to eight. All told, Forde’s six catches accounted for 84 of the team’s receiving yards against the RedHawks.
More important defensive plays were forthcoming following Forde’s reception for the final touchdown.
On Marist’s second play from scrimmage, senior defensive back Ty Ottoson picked off a pass by Smythe, giving Loyola the ball back at the home team’s 45-yard line.
“During halftime our coaches told us if their quarterback lined up inside they probably were going outside,” Ottoson said. “I saw their alignment and their quarterback was inside, and when he threw I made the interception with the help of (senior defensive back) Joe Auer. Joe made him throw over the top and I picked it off.”
The Ramblers were unable to score after the interception but got down to the RedHawks’ 7-yard line when the presumed holder on a field goal attempt, senior Ryan Craddock, ran with the ball for a 21-yard gain that left him a yard shy of a first down.
Then, Loyola’s senior safety Johnny McGuire sealed the victory with an interception and 12-yard runback to the Marist 26.
“It was good to face an explosive team like that,” Hogg said. “It’s going to make us better.”
Holecek saw a lot to like in a see-saw offensive struggle in which neither team punted.
“We settled down and fought through adversity,” the Ramblers coach said. “The (assistant) coaches in the (press) box did a great job. We saw some amazing catches by their star receiver. In the second half we tried to double down on their star receiver and do some different things with our pass rush.”
The Ramblers will be on the road again for their next game on Friday night (Oct. 7), traveling to go to the far southwest suburb of New Lenox to play Providence Catholic. While Loyola (6-0) was passing by far its toughest test of the season, Providence Catholic (3-3) was getting trounced 28-3 by Montini.
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.