Ramblers’ huge first quarter keys playoff-opening rout — but LA loses standout tailback to injury
Loyola will travel 300 miles south for Round 2 matchup
Loyola Academy began the IHSA Class 8A playoffs with an awesome show of strength in the first quarter of the Ramblers’ Saturday, Oct. 29, home-field game with Plainfield South, but their exaltation was tempered by a year-ending injury to their leading scorer and rusher, Will Nimesheim.
With 6:16 to play in the quarter the junior halfback could not get up after sustaining an injury to his right knee when was tackled following an 8-yard gain. He was helped off the field and then reportedly was taken to the hospital where surgery is expected.
“Honestly, it was the worst thing that could have happened,” Loyola coach John Holecek lamented after the sixth-seeded Ramblers rebounded from their first regular season loss in three seasons the previous weekend against undefeated Mount Carmel by overwhelming the mismatched 27th-seeded Cougars, 42-7.
“Will and Jake (Stearney, quarterback) are our MVPs — All-Catholic League players,” he added.
Now, for their second-round matchup the injury-plagued Ramblers (9-1) must travel nearly 300 miles to take on 26th-seeded Edwardsville (7-3) on Saturday, Nov. 5. In a mild upset Edwardsville was a 43-36 winner in its first round game at 11th-seeded O’Fallon (8-2). In the IHSA postseason, the team with fewer playoff home games to that point gets to host the contest; the teams’ seeds come into play if they have equal playoff home games.
Nimesheim ended his stellar season with 62 points, rushing for seven touchdowns, catching two others and running for a two-point conversion.
Before making his premature departure from the playoff opener, he gained 30 yards in six rushing attempts (giving him 596 yards in 99 carries for the abbreviated season) and caught two passes for 28 yards (increasing his season output to 54 yards on 18 receptions).
Sophomore Drew MacPherson, who began the season as Nimesheim’s backup and is the team’s second leading rusher with 341 yards in 50 carries, also is on the injured list for the remainder of the year because of a broken ankle suffered in the Sept. 30 victory at Marist.
Luke Foster, the scoring star of the sophomore team, was immediately promoted to the varsity the next weekend at Providence Catholic and now, with only four games of experience, he is being thrust into playing a key role.
“Luke and (junior quarterback) Freedom Ali, will have to fill in, and we might have to call on Johnny McGuire (the senior free safety who is one of the best players on the Ramblers’ defensive unit),” Holecek said. “We’ll have to see what we can come up with at practice.”
The first three minutes of the Plainfield South game saw the Ramblers strike for 14 points — the polar opposite of the start of the third quarter of the 42-37 loss to Mount Carmel in which they went three-and-out following the kickoff and then surrendered two touchdowns in the first 4 minutes 3 seconds.
This time, after Quinn Foley ran the opening kickoff back to their 41, Stearney and Nimesheim led them on a 12-play touchdown drive with the TD coming on Stearney’s 6-yard pass to Corey Larson with 2 minutes 50 seconds elapsed.
Michael Baker kicked the extra point and then booted the kickoff into the end zone for a touchback, a custom that followed each of the Ramblers’ five first-quarter scores.
On Plainfield South’s first play from scrimmage McGuire picked off quarterback Connor Folliard’s pass and returned it 30 yards to the end zone, a scant nine seconds after the first touchdown. Baker delivered his second extra point kick, and Loyola already had what would prove to be an insurmountable lead.
On the Cougars’ ensuing possession, the Ramblers pushed them back to their 9-yard line, forcing a to punt that went out of bounds at the Plainfield South 41. Six plays later Loyola had its third touchdown.
Nimesheim accounted for 26 yards on two runs and one reception before his untimely departure. Foster replaced him and the sophomore put the finishing touches on the drive with a 14-yard run followed by a 1-yard scoring run.
The Cougars followed with just one yard on three carries, dictating another fourth-down punt, and four plays thereafter the Ramblers scored their fourth touchdown on Foster’s 12-yard run. Prefacing the touchdown were passes of six and 10 yards from Stearney to wide receiver Nicholas Arogundade and a personal foul against the visitors.
Again, the Cougars went backward and had to punt on fourth down after Folliard was sacked at his 15.
Luke Collins replaced Stearney and quarterbacked the Ramblers on a four-play touchdown drive that began at their 45. A holding penalty wiped out a 33-yard gain on a run by Foster but on the next play Collins found Foley in the open and the wide receiver scored on a 59-yard play.
Baker’s fifth extra point put Loyola on top 35-0 with 87 seconds to play in the first quarter, leaving no doubt as to the outcome.
The quarter ended with the Ramblers having amassed 200 net yards to 3 for the Cougars.
For the remainder of the mismatch Holecek used his bench brigade, while Plainfield South Coach Bill Bicker kept his first team on the field for almost all of the game.
Foster, who rushed for a team-high 32 yards in five rushes, got the rest of the afternoon off, and seniors Peter Hogan and Ryan Craddock were the first to take over the running back responsibilities.
“I feel bad (because of the injuries to Nimesheim and MacPherson) but I’m super thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity to show the coaches and players what I’ve got,” Foster said. “At the varsity level, I’ve found the players are faster and stronger and the defenses are more complex.”
Craddock concluded the touchdown rampage when he went over from the 1-yard line with 4:53 to play in the first half after spearheading the 72-yard scoring drive by running for 25 yards in four carries and collaborating with Collins on a 23-yard pass play. Baker’s extra point made the score 42-0.
Craddock’s normal role is serving as the holder on extra points and kickoffs. His 31 net yards in six rushes and two pass receptions for 39 yards represent the most productive performance of the senior’s high school career.
“We all feel bad because of Will’s terrible injury,” he said. “I just want to help our team in any way possible. That’s the way we all feel.”
With the Ramblers leading by 40-plus points, a running clock was activated in the second half so the final 24 minutes whizzed by.
It wasn’t until the second minute of the half that the Cougars got a first down for the first time.
They wound up scoring the only touchdown of the second half. It came on Folliard’s 21-yard pass to Brian Stanton with 9 minutes 51 seconds remaining.
Statistically, the game was no contest. The disparity was most pronounced in the aerial game. Stearney was 7-for-8 passing for 79 yards; Collins 6-for-7 for 115; Ali 2-for-4 for 14; and Luke Holubar 1-for-1 for 5, while Plainfield South was successful on only 3 of 15 passes and lost 15 yards on sacks, as Plainfield South ended the year with a 6-4 record.
Agorogundade, who went into the game with four catches for 20 yards this season, made a significant impact, pulling down a team-high four passes to account for 39 yards.
“I want to keep making plays like I did today,” the junior said. “Jake and I have been making plays (in practice) since I was a sophomore. I’m comfortable with him and I feel I have a good relationship with all of our quarterbacks.
“We’ve had a lot of guys dropping out because of injuries and hopefully the rest of us can fill the void.”
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.