Wilmette, Sports

First-play fireworks and clutch defense send Loyola Academy home with third state championship in last seven seasons

Loyola Academy quarterback Jake Stearney and wide receiver Declan Ford have been classmates since they started kindergarten at St. Mary of the Woods in Chicago’s Wildwood neighborhood, and when they began playing football they thrived on collaborating on long passes for touchdowns.

Years later, on the Ramblers’ first play from scrimmage in the IHSA Class 8A state championship game against Lincoln-Way East on Saturday, Nov. 26, at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium, they did it again.

This time it was the biggest play of their football careers.

Stearney handed off to Johnny McGuire who then tossed a lateral back to the quarterback as Forde was breaking downfield behind the secondary. Stearney hurled the football, Forde caught it at the Griffins’ 37-yard line and took it to the end zone.

“Nothing new,” Forde said. “We used to do it all the time in grade school. To see it pay off in a state championship game was great. Seeing the ball in the air, it felt like forever before it came in my hands.”

Members of the Loyola Academy football rush their fan section at Memorial Stadium in Champaign after earning a state championship.

Hitherto undefeated Lincoln-Way East never recovered. The Griffins bent the Ramblers’ defense time and again but that defense never broke down. All they got out of their frequent forays to Loyola territory was a 30-yard field goal by Carter Nair in the first half after a 19-play drive to the Ramblers’ 2-yard line was halted when outside linebacker Emmett McCarthy sacked quarterback Braden Tischer for a loss of 9 yards.

In the second half, the Ramblers were the recipient of the kickoff and went on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that was culminated by Stearney’s 17-yard pass to Forde in the end zone.

While the Ramblers missed the point after, it proved to be irrelevant.

Neither team scored again in the second half, and the Ramblers walked off the field where their coach John Holecek starred as a player with a hard-earned 13-3 victory that gave him his third Class 8A championship (2015, 2018, 2022) in his 17 seasons as their coach.

“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime coach and we wanted to add to his legacy here,” said Loyola’s outstanding defensive end Brooks Bahr, who will begin his own collegiate career next fall at the University of Michigan. “Ever since our loss to (to eventual state champion) Lockport last year (in the semifinals) we had this game circled.”

That defeat was one of only two in the past three seasons. The Ramblers were undefeated in the COVID-necessitated and unprecedented 2020-’21 six-game spring season in which there was no state tournament and they lost their last game of the current regular season to undefeated Mount Carmel.

“We had a little hiccup in the Mount Carmel game,” Holecek said. “I told the guys: ‘We’re a really good team — a couple plays away from being undefeated.

“Every time I walked out on the field for the (pre-game) coin flip I was inspired by these guys and confident because of these guys.

“Today they did a tremendous job in goal-line situations.”

Loyola Academy’s Joe Auer (21) breaks up a pass to Lincoln-Way East’s Jayden Cook in the state championship game Saturday, Nov. 26.

Holecek said the trick play that produced the electrifying first touchdown on the Ramblers’ first play from scrimmage was the brain child of offensive coordinator Tyler Vradenburg.

He liked the idea. “Tyler asked me: ‘What about this?’ And I said: ‘Worst case it will stop their safety from going down too fast.’ It was a great call.”

The Ramblers rehearsed the trick play all week in practice.

“For Declan and I that (long pass) was our first play in grammar school and to see us pull it off in a state championship, game was great,” Stearney said. “It’s crazy. We grew up watching Loyola football. I remember going to all of the games, hoping to be out there someday.”

While that first punch turned out to be tantamount to a technical knockout, it was Lincoln-Way East that was landing most of the punches in the first half. The Griffins were in Loyola territory all four times they had the football and the time of possession numbers were lopsided —17 minutes 45 seconds for LW East and a scant 6 minutes 15 seconds for the Ramblers.

“In the first half we dominated everywhere but on the scoreboard,” said Griffins coach Rob Zvonar, who has taken the Griffins to five state title games in his 22 years as their coach. (They won the championship in 2005, 2017 and 2019, besting Loyola in the 2017 contest.)

“That first play for them was a big play for them but we still were very confident,” Griffins’ All-State linebacker Jake Scianna said.

The only challenging encounter for Lincoln-Way East in its 13 previous games was a 28-21 overtime conquest of Bradley-Bourbonnais in the second last game of the regular season.

Loyola Academy’s Joe Kelly, who returned from injury to play in the state-title game, yells in celebration after the victory.

In the state championship game the Griffins were dominant on the ground with 115 net yards in 36 carries, while the Ramblers were held to 25 net yards in 25 rushes.

But Stearney had the upper hand in the passing statistics. Relying on Forde, Spencer Leadbetter and Corey Larsen as his primary receivers, he had 14 completions in 19 attempts for 174 yards and the 2 TDs compared to Tischer’s 11 completions in 21 attempts for 81 yards.

“We didn’t get the lanes open we should have,” Tischer said.

According to Holecek, the reason was “our defensive backs were pressing more than usual.”

The interior linemen, inside linebackers and Bahr at defensive end excelled for the Ramblers in clutch situations. The statistical standouts were: linebacker Colin Scheid, with seven solo tackles and four assisted tackles; defensive tackle Joe Kelly, who returned from a seven-game injury absence, with five unassisted and three assisted tackles; and Bahr, with three solo and five assisted tackles.

In contrast, Lincoln-Way’s top tackler, linebacker Charlie Newinger, had three solo and two assisted tackles.

Making Loyola’s victory even more impressive was the performance of Mount Carmel in the Class 7A championship game. The Caravan struck for three unanswered touchdowns in the first quarter and went on end their perfect season with a lopsided 44-20 victory over Batavia.

Neil Milbert

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.

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