Coach John Holecek, who led Loyola Academy to last year’s IHSA Class 8A State Championship, accepted the invitation of his successor, Beau Desherow, and spoke to the Ramblers before they began their quest for another title in their first playoff game on Saturday, Oct. 28 at Hoerster Field.
“John and I are very close,” Desherow said. “We’ve been close for almost 20 years. I asked him to talk to the team. It was good to have him back. Our theme this week was brotherhood. Once you’re part of the Rambler family, you’re always part of the Rambler family.”
The Ramblers got the message from their past and present coaches. They trounced Plainfield North 45-9.
Loyola (10-0) will be back at Hoerster Field on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 4 for a second round game against Neuqua Valley (7-3), a 31-17 winner over Palatine in its opening round matchup.
Plainfield North (4-6) took the opening kickoff and surprised the Ramblers by moving to the Loyola 19 before the drive bogged down. Faced with a fourth-and-19 situation at the 23, the visitors settled for a 40-yard field goal by Omar Coleman that gave them a 3-0 lead with 5:53 to play in the first quarter.
“That opening drive had us on our heels a little bit,” Desherow said. “To hold them to a field goal was good and then we responded the rest of the way.”
The response was immediate. On their first possession the Ramblers drove 57 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown that came on quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald’s 9-yard pass to fellow junior Will Carlson.
“On the first possession when they drove it downfield it was like: ‘Whoa, what’s going on? We can’t let them hang around!’” Fitzgerald recalled after the game. “We came back and took everything out of them.”
After Michael Baker kicked the first of his seven extra points, Plainfield North returned the kickoff to its own 25. On the first play from scrimmage, cornerback JT Kurtzweil made the kind of interception they show on highlight films and ran it back 25 yards to the 13. Four plays later junior Drew MacPherson scored the Ramblers’ second touchdown on an 8-yard run down the right sideline with 1:57 to play in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Baker kicked a 37-yard field goal; senior Emmanuel Ofosu returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown; and a Charlie Day interception return prefaced a 30-yard TD pass from Fitzgerald to Baker.
“It was my second pick of the season and the first touchdown of my (Loyola) career,” Ofosu said. “I caught it and took off and it dawned on me that I was going to get the touchdown. It’s been a great season. I’ve just been doing my job and having a lot of fun out there.”
The Ramblers padded their lead in the third quarter, thanks to Fitzgerald’s 18-yard run, and with 8:34 to play in the fourth quarter sub running back Francis Corrigan scored from 1 yard out to activate the running clock (which occurs when a team leads by 41 or more points in the second half).
With 1:41 remaining a 5-yard run by Cameron Morris gave the visitors their lone TD.
Fitzgerald led the Loyola attack with 151 passing yards on 15 completions in 22 attempts and 47 yards on five rushing attempts. Backup Lucas Holubar took over in the third quarter and completed all six of his passes for 33 yards.
Carlson had his best afternoon of the season. He was Fitzgerald’s primary receiver with six catches for 74 yards.
“I don’t really pay attention to my stats,” he said. “Any way I can help the team, whether it’s catching passes or blocking I’ll do it. We come here to win, and that’s what we did today.”
“We have a lot to build on after our big game today,” senior defensive end Jimmy McGovern said. “I think we’ll keep getting better every week in the playoffs.”
Ramblers earn accolades following unbeaten regular season
A few days following the conclusion of the Ramblers’ undefeated regular season and prefacing the start of the playoffs Desherow was selected as the recipient of the Lawless Award, given annually to the Chicago Catholic League’s Blue Division Coach of the Year.
It was one of many awards for the Ramblers. Fitzgerald was selected the Blue Division’s Offensive Player of the Year; two-way senior tackle Joe Kelly, Lineman of the Year; and McGovern, Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Joining those three on the All-Conference team were MacPherson at running back, senior wide receiver Nicholas Arogundade, Ofosu at cornerback, and senior linebackers Colin Scheid and Quinn Herbert.
For Herbert and Desherow, their honors have emotional overtones.
Herbert’s grandfather, Mike Herbert, was an All-Chicago Catholic League selection in 1956.
Desherow is a member of Loyola’s Hall of Fame who was a star outside linebacker for the Ramblers in the early 1990s and returned as an assistant coach in 2004 (two years before Holecek’s arrival). He was one of Holecke’s top assistants until he left the staff in 2019 to work as vice president of admissions and enrollment through the 2022-23 school year. His sons were Loyola players during the time he spent as an assistant.
Desherow took over the team after Holecek, who’d coached the Ramblers for 17 seasons, decided to step away a few months after leading the Ramblers to the state championship.
“Loyola football is in good hands,” Holecek predicted when his successor was hired on March 15. “Beau brings it all.”
The Plainfield North game was the first one Holecek attended this season. “I didn’t want to be a distraction,” he said. “Beau is doing a great job with this team.”
A school record 185 victories and three state championship seasons is a hard act to follow but during the regular season, Desherow’s Ramblers outdid their illustrious 2022 predecessors by going undefeated and avenging the preceding season’s only loss by ending defending Class 7A State Champion Mount Carmel’s 22-game winning streak.
Goal-line stands were the most important component in that 22-20 triumph and it was fitting because the defense stood out throughout the regular season. The Ramblers gave up a meager 8.5 points-per-game. They had two shutouts, one five-point game, one six-point game and three seven-point games. In losing 41-24, Brother Rice scored the most points by an opponent but the score was misleading because the last two touchdowns were scored in the fourth quarter by the Crusaders’ first team against the Ramblers’ second and third stringers.
During the nine regular season games, Herbert led the Ramblers with 66 tackles, followed by Scheid with 64, senior outside linebacker Jack McGrath with 48, McGovern with 37, senior safety Kenny Langston with 36, senior cornerback Ethan Hogg with 35 and Kelly with 34.
“We can’t say enough about Jack McGrath,” Desherow commented. “He’s extremely powerful, very quick and one of our most versatile defenders — a hybrid type linebacker who has to cover the pass like a defensive back, stop the run and pass rush. And he’s also our long snapper.”
Another significant contributor to the successful regular season was Kurtzweil, who was unassisted on 13 of his 15 tackles and returned an interception 34 yards.
“JT has been a really good surprise,” Desherow commented. “We called on him to fill in after (senior) Matty Vallas was injured and we haven’t missed a beat with him out there.”
Defensive tackle Davidson Hagedorn is another senior who stood out during the regular season along with juniors Donovan Robinson at safety, Connor Sullivan at defensive end/defensive tackle/nose guard, Charlie Prior at linebacker/safety, Daly at middle linebacker and Thomas Ghislandi at defensive end. And the same can be said for sophomore Kai Calcutt, an All-state wrestler who played defensive tackle and defensive end.
“He’s going to have a very bright future with us,” Desherow said of Calcutt.
Based on what transpired during the regular season and in the first game of the playoffs it seems that the same can be said for Calcutt’s 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.