Wilmette, Sports

Ramblers do Illinois proud with emphatic win in Michigan

New coach Beau Desherow and his Loyola Academy football team got off to a resounding start on Saturday, Aug. 26.

The defending IHSA Class 8A champions began the game and the season by scoring unanswered touchdowns in their first four possessions to take a 28-point lead with just over four minutes to play in the first half and went on to overwhelm perennial Michigan 5A powerhouse Catholic Central, 45-7.

Drew MacPherson began the first half spree by scoring on a 6-yard run with 3 minutes 57 seconds elapsed and fellow junior Ryan Fitzgerald followed with scoring passes of 2 and 30 yards to senior lineman Joe Kelly and junior Owen Joyce, respectively, and a 1-yard touchdown run sandwiched between the TD tosses.

During the four drives Fitzgerald completed 8 of 10 passes to seven different receivers for 98 yards and ran three times for 42 yards, while MacPherson carried nine times for 55 yards and caught three passes for 36 yards.

“Drew did an awesome job,” Desherow said, “and Ryan (making his varsity debut at quarterback) was very poised when he came out on the road in a hostile environment and made the right reads and right decisions.

“So many guys stood out on our offensive line. The entire receiving corps looked great. Our defensive line set the tone. (Senior) Colin Scheid had one of the best games I’ve seen from a linebacker in a long time.”

On Catholic Central’s first possession Scheid intercepted a second-down pass and ran the ball back 20 yards to the Cougars’ 29-yard line to set up Loyola’s second touchdown.

“It felt a little weird with a new coach but we prepared for this game and we wanted to come out and dominate,” Scheid said. “We have a great defensive line. They’re all really talented.”

After batting down a would-be touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone to end the first half, Loyola’s defense put the Cougars in a fourth-and-17 situation at their own 13 to start the second half.

The punt was downed at the Ramblers’ 34, giving them their fifth possession of the game. This time they drove to the 8-yard-line before settling for Mike Baker’s 25-yard field goal.

Under unrelenting rushing pressure from the Ramblers defensive line and linebackers, QB Connor Wolf finally succeeded in getting the Cougars on the scoreboard in their next possession when he connected on a 57-yard touchdown pass to Mill Coleman III running down the right sideline. The TD and extra point came with 3:25 to play in the third quarter and reduced Catholic Central’s deficit to 31-7.

On the Ramblers’ next possession seniors Lucas Holubar and Freedom Ali came in to play quarterback and the rout continued thanks to their impressive performances. Holubar threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to senior Aaron Appiah-Kubi late in the third quarter, and in the final quarter, Ali ran 12 yards for the last touchdown, marking the seventh time in seven successive possessions that Loyola put points on the scoreboard.

Also playing a solid game was MacPherson’s backup, senior running back Finley Miller.

“It felt great running behind the offensive line and Ryan looked like a three-year starter at quarterback,” MacPherson said. “He was making it easy for us to catch the ball.”

Fitzgerald, who completed 17 of his 21 passes for 169 yards and ran five times for 41 net yards, credited his success to offensive coordinator Tyler Vradenburg’s game plan, “my teammates on the line and the wide range of talent that my receivers have.”

“It all goes to show how well we prepared,” he emphasized.

Vradenburg and the other assistants on Desherow’s staff are holdovers from the regime of coach John Holecek, who stepped down at the end of the 2022 championship season after winning a school record 185 games, advancing to the state title game seven times, and winning earlier championships in 2015 and 2018.

Joining them as a volunteer assistant coach in late August was Ryan Fitzgerald’s father, Northwestern’s former head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Desherow played at Loyola Academy and is a member of the school’s sports Hall of Fame. He returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 2004 (two years before the arrival of Holecek) and coached the defensive line in 2015 and 2018. He left the coaching staff to work as vice president of admissions and enrollment from 2019 through the 2022-23 school year.

Although most of last season’s top players on the offensive unit have graduated and two outstanding running backs — senior Will Nimesheim and junior Luke Foster — are out for the year with injuries, the Ramblers dispelled any doubts about their talent pool in Desherow’s dazzling debut.

On paper, Catholic Central had appeared to be a dangerous opponent by virtue of its five state championships in the past seven seasons and a state semifinal season last year when the Cougars finished with an 11-2 record.

There was only one significant change in the aftermath of the Ramblers’ coaching regime change: following his postgame critique on the field, Desherow led his players and assistant coaches in singing the Loyola fight song in honor of his alma mater.

The Ramblers will be back on the road when they try to build more momentum at Naperville North on Friday, Sept. 1 in a 7 p.m. contest.

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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