Goal-line stands at the start of the game and the end of the game were the keys to defending IHSA Class 8 champion Loyola Academy’s 23-21 conquest of defending Class 7A champion Mount Carmel in the battle of undefeated powerhouses that ended regular season play on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 21, at Hoerster Field.
Mount Carmel, which was the only team to defeat Loyola last season, went into the showdown ranked No. 1 in the metropolitan area by the Chicago Sun-Times, while the Ramblers were ranked No. 2.
The victory enabled the Ramblers (9-0) to dethrone the Caravan (8-1) and claim the Catholic League Blue Division championship, while earning them the No. 1 seed in the first round of the state tournament. They will play No. 32 seed Plainfield North (4-5) back at Hoerster Field on Saturday, Oct. 28.
Just as it did last season in Saturday’s rematch the Caravan rallied in the second half. Climaxing the comeback was an 85-yard drive for a touchdown that came on Jack Elliott’s 10-yard pass to Darrion Gilliam with 3 minutes 13 seconds to play, and the invaders needed only a two-point conversion to send the game into overtime.
But Elliott was under pressure, his receivers were covered and his pass for the two-pointer fell incomplete. When the Ramblers took possession, they ran out the clock.
The Ramblers’ first goal-line stand came on the first possession of the game when Mount Carmel drove from its own 20 to the Loyola 2. Maurice Densmore was thrown for a 2-yard loss on third down, creating a fourth-and-goal situation at the Loyola 4.
Wisconsin recruit Darrion Dupree carried on fourth down and was stopped at the 2.
“It was huge,” Loyola’s first-year coach Beau Desherow said. “It got our defense going and it got our offensive going.”
After taking over the football on their 2-yard line the Ramblers proceeded to strike for the afternoon’s first touchdown.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald made an important play on the way when he scrambled for 6 yards to get a first down on a third-and-5 situation at his own 7.
The running of Fitzgerald and Drew MacPherson took the ball to the Loyola 35 and then Fitzgerald found Michael Baker in the clear and hurled a long pass that the star kicker, who is used sparingly as a wide receiver, took to the end zone.
“Our O-line gave me so much time to throw,” Fitzgerald said. “He caught it and he ran like the wind (which was gusting up to 35 mph).”
It was the first TD of the season and the eighth reception for Baker whose longest reception hitherto was for 11 yards.
“I’ve played other positions all my life (before coming to Loyola and specializing in kicking),” Baker said. “I’m proud I got the opportunity to make something happen.
“Everyone knew from the first day of practice that this was going to be the biggest game of the year and it was going to be a battle.”
Early in the second quarter, the Ramblers’ defense made another big stop, throwing Dupree for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1 at the Mount Carmel 41.
Four plays later plays later Loyola had its second touchdown. MacPherson gained 15 yards on a reverse; Fitzgerald threw a 5-yard pass to Brendan Loftus, followed by an incompletion, and then the junior quarterback ran 19 yards for the touchdown.
Again Fitzgerald saluted the offensive linemen: “I don’t think I saw anyone (with a chance to make a tackle) all the way to the end zone,” he said.
Baker kicked his second extra point, putting the Ramblers on top 14-0.
This time Mount Carmel retaliated, going 80 yards on three plays for a touchdown that came when Elliott and Densmore collaborated on a 72-yard pass. Louis Chappetto’s extra-point kick reduced the deficit to 14-7.
On the Ramblers’ next possession they were pushed back to their own 11 but Baker’s 74-yard punt reversed the situation and the Caravan had to start from their 15.
Undaunted the Caravan went back on the attack and penetrated to the Loyola 14. Needing 2 yards for a first down, Dupree ran the football on fourth down and Connor Sullivan made another big play for the Ramblers on defense, tackling him for a 1-yard loss.
Now, it was Loyola’s turn to make an offensive overture. The Ramblers drove to the Mount Carmel 30 before the drive bogged down. With 20 seconds left in the half Baker was called on to attempt a 47-yard field goal and he connected, putting the Ramblers on top 17-7.
“He kept telling me all day: ‘I’m good from 60 (yards away)’ so I was confident he was going to make it,” Desherow remembered.
Approaching the midway point in the second half the Ramblers scored their third touchdown. Fitzgerald set up the touchdown and then scored it. He found MacPherson on a 71-yard pass play that put the ball on the Mount Carmel 9 and from there he ran it to the end zone for his second touchdown.
But Mount Carmel blocked the extra point to stay within two touchdowns of tying the score.
Six seconds into the fourth quarter Elliott’s 28-yard pass to Densmore followed by Elliott’s run for a two-point conversion slashed the Ramblers’ lead to 23-15 and set the stage for their game-saving defensive stand in the closing minutes.
“When there was a bad penalty or Mount Carmel made a big play we didn’t dwell on that,” Desherow said. “When they put together those drives it would have been easy to hang our heads. We had that ‘make the next play’ mentality. When they scored that last touchdown on the next play we made the huge stop that made the difference.”
Statistically the Caravan was dominant in almost every major category: first downs 19-13; net yards rushing 167-136; net yards passing 247-217; possession time 26:43-21:17. The Ramblers also were assessed more penalty yardage: 69 yards to 45.
But Baker gave the Ramblers the advantage in the kicking game and the third and fourth down conversions were a significant factor: Mount Carmel was 2-for-11 in third down conversions and 1-for-4 on fourth down conversions, while Loyola was 5-for-13 on third down and 0-for-1 on fourth down.
In lauding his team, Desherow cited the roles played by Fitzgerald, Baker and tackle Joe Kelly.
“Ryan came through for us,” Fitzgerald said. “When we’re up against it, I love having the ball in his hands.
“Michael is the best kicker in the state and Joe played both ways — offense and defense — at tackle; in this day and age in a game like this you don’t see anybody (excelling) like that.”
In addition to catching the touchdown pass, kicking the long field goal and two extra points, Baker averaged 44.8 yards on his five punts and 59.8 yards on his five kickoffs.
The Mount Carmel secondary and hard-charging linemen minimized the damage Fitzgerald did with his (8-for-21) passing but he offset that by leading the Ramblers in rushing with 74 net yards in 16 carries.
“Our coaches told me all week at practice ‘you’re going to have to run a lot’ so I was fully prepared,” Fitzgerald said.
If the heavily favored Ramblers win their playoff opener they will meet the winner of the game between No. 8 seed Neuqua Valley and No. 9 Palatine in the second round. Both have 6-3 records.
Mount Carmel is the No. 6 seed in Class 7A and will play No. 26 St. Rita (5-4) in the first round. In addition to those two schools two other regular season opponents of Loyola made the playoffs. Brother Rice (5-4) is seeded No 27 in Class 7A and Immaculate Conception (7-2) is No. 7 in Class 4A (after winning the Class 3A championship last year).
This year’s state championship games will be played at Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium. The title games in the four lower classes numerically will be played on Nov. 24 and the four upper classes on Nov. 25.
Conspicuous by its presence in the Class 8A field is Lincoln Way East (9-0), the team the Ramblers defeated in the 2022 championship game that was John Holecek’s last game as their coach.
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.