Wilmette, Sports

Defensive stars highlight Ramblers roster under first-year head coach

Reigning 8A champs turn to junior FItzgerald as starting QB


Never let it be said that Beau Desherow picked a pushover for his first game as Loyola Academy’s head football coach.

The Ramblers will travel to Grand Rapids on Saturday, Aug. 26, to play Central Catholic, a Michigan powerhouse that has won five state championships in the past seven seasons. After winning three straight state titles starting in 2019, the Cougars lost in the semifinals last season.

“Central Catholic will be a very tough season opener,” Desherow said. “They are very well-coached (by Todd Kolster) and they have talented players.”

Like their opponents, the defending IHSA Class 8A champion Ramblers have a reputation for excellence.

During the last 17 seasons under former coach John Holecek they won a school record 185 games and were seven-time state tournament finalists. Last year’s state title run was preceded by championship seasons in 2015 and 2018.

Desherow was the defensive line coach on the 2015 and 2018 teams after coming to his alma mater as an assistant in 2004, two years before Holecek’s arrival. He left the coaching staff to serve as Loyola’s vice president of admissions and enrollment from 2019 through the 2022-23 school year and watch his sons play college football.

“I’ve worked with Beau for almost 20 years — Beau brings it all,” Holecek said when Desherow was hired as his successor on March 15. “Loyola football is in good hands.”

While Holecek has been biding his time in deciding what the next chapter of his life in football will be, Desherow has immersed himself in preparing for the upcoming season.


Ryan Fitzgerald, the Ramblers first-string quarterback, releases a pass during a preseason practice.

Graduation has taken a heavy toll. The most significant departures are seven of the best players on the offensive unit — quarterback Jake Stearney; wide receivers Declan Forde, Spencer Leadbetter, Quinn Foley and Corey Larson; and tight ends Jack Parker and Jack Fitzgerald — and All-State free safety Johnny McGuire on defense.

Compounding these losses have been injuries that will deprive Desherow of last season’s two most productive running backs: senior Will Nimesheim and junior Luke Foster, the star of last year’s sophomore team before being promoted to the varsity in the third to last game of the regular season.

Nimesheim’s 2022 season ended when he tore the ACL in his right knee during the first playoff game and he reinjured the knee during the offseason.

“He was still going through rehab and wasn’t cleared for practice,” Desherow said. “He hurt it in a freak accident,” and “Luke hurt his knee in a noncontact practice during the summer. It gave out on him when he was making a cut.”

As a consequence, instead of having three proven, high-quality running backs returning, the team’s only accomplished holdover is junior Drew MacPherson, who averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns before sustaining a broken ankle in the sixth regular season game.

“I did a lot of (physical therapy) and I’m doing a lot of stretching,” MacPherson said. “I hopped right into the summer practices and I feel 110%. I’m running stronger than I ever have.”

Desherow considers MacPherson to be one of the Ramblers’ “key offensive players,” and plans to “use him in a lot of different ways.”

Senior Finn Miller also is being counted on as an important component in the running game. He looked good in the Maroon and Gold controlled scrimmage on Aug. 12.

In Desherow’s opinion, the graduation of Stearney will be offset by the presence of “three very capable quarterbacks”: junior Ryan Fitzgerald and seniors Freedom Ali and Lucas Holubar.

Ryan is the brother of Jack Fitzgerald, a co-captain last season who went on to become the senior class valedictorian, and son of Pat Fitzgerald, the former Northwestern football coach who is volunteering for the Ramblers this season.

Ryan Fitzgerald is expected to be one of the team’s most important players and has won the starting quarterback spot.

“First and foremost Ryan is a great leader,” Desherow said. “And he has the ability to run and pass. He will be the No. 1 quarterback. He played well in our scrimmage and so did Freedom and Lucas.”

Loyola’ Nicholas Arogundade runs under a pass in practice. The senior is expected to be a key receiver for the Ramblers.

Both of the backups got a taste of varsity football last season. Ali completed 3 of 7 passes for 56 yards and Holubar connected on 7 of 8 for 46 yards.

Senior Nicholas Arogundade is expected to be the go-to-guy among the wide receivers after “a great summer,” Desherow said.

Junior tight end Brendan Loftus also has caught the coach’s eye in practice: “Brendan is 6-6; he will be a nice target.

“Our receivers are a young group,” Desherow said. “There are some playmakers who will continue to develop as the season goes on.”

Senior Mike Baker has been an impact contributor as a point-after-touchdown and field-goal kicker and a punter for the past two seasons. Last year he was the team’s second leading scorer with 73 points (on 55 extra-points and 6 field goals).

“He might be the best kicker in the state,” Desherow asserted. “He’s a heck of a weapon for us. He’s such a good athlete and he’s a competitor. We may use him a little bit on offense at wide receiver.”

The only returning starter on the offensive line is Kyle Baltazar, an Army recruit who is moving from left guard to right tackle.

Also on the offensive line VIP list are 6-4, 285-pound left tackle Colton Vendry and right guard Joey Herbert, both of whom were second-stringers last season.


Four starters from the defensive unit are returning: tackle Joe Kelly, outside linebacker Ethan Hogg, inside linebacker Colin Scheid and strong safety Kenny Langston.

“We bring a lot back on defense and we’re well-rounded,” Langston said. “The (head) coaching change hasn’t been an adjustment. We have all the same position coaches and practice is pretty much the same.”

Desherow believes that defense will be one of Loyola’s strong points this season and he considers Hogg to be a bulwark. As a junior, the linebacker totaled 69 tackles (35 solo), 14 tackles for loss and 7 1/2 sacks.

“We’re looking for Ethan to have a great senior year,” he said. “He has had a great summer and a lot of college scholarship offers.” 

Scheid and Kelly were the Ramblers’ top tacklers when they defeated Lincoln-Way East 13-3 in the state championship game. Scheid had seven solo and four assisted tackles, while Kelly had five solos and three assists. 

We might not be as skilled as we were last year but we’ll be a lot tougher.”
Joe Kelly, senior defensive lineman for Loyola

Based on their summer performances, Desherow thinks senior outside linebacker Jack McGrath, senior defensive back Emman Ofosu and junior free safety Donovan Robinson are ready to step into prime-time roles.

“We’ve had a great summer coming together as a team,” said Kelly, who committed to Colgate this month. “We might not be as skilled as we were last year but we’ll be a lot tougher.”


While the focus is on the season opener in Grand Rapids, Kelly can’t help but look down the road at the last game of the regular season on Oct. 21 at home against Mount Carmel, last season’s undefeated Class 7A champion.

“They handed us our only loss last year,” he said. “I want to get even.”

After the opening game against Central Catholic, the Ramblers also will play their next two games on the road, at Naperville North on Sept. 1 and at Marist on Sept. 8. Desherow makes his home debut on Sept. 16 against Brother Rice at Hoerster Field, where the new coach played his high school football under the iconic deceased coach John Hoerster.

LOYOLA ACADEMY 2023 (2022: 11-1; IHSA Class 8A champions)

Opponent (2022 record)Day, DateHome/AwayLast year’s result
Central Catholic (Mich.)Saturday, Aug. 26AwayN/A
Naperville North (7-2)*^Friday, Sept. 1AwayN/A
Marist (6-3)*^Friday, Sept. 8AwayWin: 28-17
Brother Rice (5-4)*^Saturday, Sept. 16HomeWin: 57-21
St. Patrick (4-5)Saturday, Sept. 23HomeWin: 53-7
St. Rita (7-2)*Friday, Sept. 29AwayWin: 34-14
IC Catholic (8-1)*Friday, Oct. 6AwayN/A
Benet Academy (4-5)Saturday, Oct. 14HomeN/A
Mount Carmel (9-0)*^Saturday, Oct. 21HomeLoss: 42-37
* Playoff team. ^ Conference opponent

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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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