Loyola Academy is back in the IHSA Class 8A final four for the seventh time in the last nine seasons.
The top-seeded defending Class 8A state champions struck for an 80-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzgerald to Nicholas Arogundade on the first play from scrimmage and rolled on to a 41-7 victory over No. 12 seeded St. Ignatius in their quarterfinal mismatch at the Wolfpack’s Fornelli Field on Saturday, Nov. 11.
The undefeated Ramblers (12-0) will be back in the friendly confines of Hoerster Field on Saturday, Nov. 18, for their semifinal rematch with fifth-seeded York (11-1), which advanced by defeating Edwardsville 36-29.
In last year’s semifinal game. Loyola traveled to Elmhurst to knock off then-undefeated York 30-3. Since then, the Dukes’ only loss came in the seventh game of the regular season, a 28-7 setback in a home game against Glenbard West.
Joining Loyola and York in the final four are two unbeaten teams — No. 2 seed Lincoln-Way East (12-0), after losing to the Ramblers in the 2022 championship game, and No. 3 seed Barrington (12-0). In their quarterfinal encounters Lincoln-Way East shut out Warren 24-0 and Barrington outgunned Maine South 42-40.
The Ramblers are going into the semifinal rematch against York with momentum, picking up this season under coach Beau Desherow where they left off last season under retired coach John Holecek, who established the school record for victories with 185 in 17 years and prefaced their 2022 championship with Class 8A state titles in 2015 and 2018.
Loyola’s offense is averaging 36 points per game and is holding opponents to an average of 8 points. In their three playoff games, the explosive Ramblers have outscored their opponents 119-22.
The game on Saturday in Chicago against fellow Jesuit school St. Ignatius typified the way they’ve been playing recently, striking early and often.
“We wanted the ball to start the game and we wanted to go right at them on that first play,” Desherow said.
The Fitzgerald-to-Arogundade bomb on the first play began an onslaught that saw Fitzgerald hurl another long pass to Arogundade for a touchdown and score a TD of his own on a run. Drew MacPherson scored a pair of touchdowns on runs and Finn Miller added another rushing touchdown.
Fitzgerald completed all six of his passes in amassing 207 yards through the air and on the ground he carried nine times for 78 yards. Backup quarterback Lucas Holubar was 2-for-3 passing for 17 yards. MacPherson ran 11 times for 78 yards and Miller had 54 yards to show for his eight rushing attempts.
The Ramblers controlled the football for 31 minutes 59 seconds of the 40-minute game.
The Loyola offensive line kept one of the nation’s top recruits, 6-foot-4, 310-pound Ohio State-bound Justin Scott, from being a factor.
“We treated him like every other guy (on the St. Ignatius defensive line),” Fitzgerald said when asked about the game plan against Scott, who is rated the No. 1 defensive lineman in Illinois high school football and in the top 10 in the nation. “It was funny when we watched the films of on Hudl; he had his own category.
“We came prepared. We know they like to take their time on offense so going in our goal was ‘on every possession we’ve got to score’ and for most of the game we did that.”
Senior offensive linemen Kyle Baltazar (6-3, 270) and Cotton Bendery (6-4, 280) threw their weight around, protecting Fitagerald when he passed and scrambled and opening holes for the runners.
“We had the offense going all day,” Baltazar said. “We got the jump and never let up.”
“Our scout team did a great job in preparing us this week in practice,” Bendery added. “We knew what they were going to do (on defense) and we adjusted with every change.”
Meanwhile, Loyola’s defense prevented the Wolfpack’s talented quarterback Jack Wanzung from making a sustained impact as either a runner or a passer.
At first, Wanzung seemed to be undaunted by the Ramblers’ touchdown on the first play from scrimmag. Led by his running, the Wolfpack answered by driving to the Loyola 30 before being stopped on downs.
The Ramblers went back on the attack and 12 plays later they were back in the end zone with just under two minutes to play in the first quarter. MacPherson’s running accounted for 60 of the 70 yards during the drive and he tallied the TD from 9 yards out on a pitchout from Fitzgerald.
Starting their next drive in the closing minute of the first quarter, the Ramblers advanced to the Wolfpack 3 where they were unable to secure a first down on a fourth-and-1 situation. During the course of the drive MacPherson appeared to have scored another touchdown on a 9-yard run around left end but it was erased by the holding penalty.
As it turned out, neither the touchdown that was called back nor the inability to get the first down from the 2-yard line was a big deal.
On the first play after getting the football on downs, St. Ignatius lost it on a fumble at the 8. Fitzgerald scored from there on a scramble and pegged a pass to Arogundade for a two-point conversion, making the score 21-0.
By halftime the Ramblers had swelled their lead to 34-0, the touchdowns coming of MacPherson’s 10-yard run and Fitzgerald’s pass to Arogundade on a play covering 54 yards.
A leaping interception by Donovan Robinson launched the drive that was climaxed by Arogundade’s second touchdown.
With 3 minutes 6 seconds elapsed in the third quarter the Ramblers activated the running clock when Miller scored on a 2-yard run and Mikey Baker kicked his third extra point, giving them a 41-0 lead.
Brendan Loftus made the big play in the drive, catching a long pass from Fitzgerald and almost making it to the end zone before being brought down.
“I saw the cornerback going to the other hash mark and I knew I was going to be open,” the 6-7 basketball player said, enumerating on the 39-yard reception. “I was praying: ‘Fitz, please get me the ball.’ He made a great throw and I took it to their 2.”
The outcome was a foregone conclusion by the time Owen Barnett scored the St. Ignatius touchdown on a 2-yard run at the outset of the fourth quarter. The big play in the 80-yard drive against Loyola reserves was Wanzung’s 40-yard pass to Liam Hynes that put the football on the Ramblers’ 13-yard line.
With subs also on the field on offense, the Ramblers took their foot off the throttle and coasted down the rest of the road to the Final Four.
“Our goal is the state championship (on Nov. 25 at Illinois State) but right now our focus is on York,” Fitzgerald said. “They want to get back at us for what happened last year.”
The emergence of Arogundade as one of the Chicago area’s most outstanding wide receivers during his senior season and the strong supporting roles played by juniors Will Carlson at wide receiver and Loftus at tight end have been major factors in the continuation of Loyola’s success story.
“With Nicholas it started with the work he did in the offseason,” Desherow said. “He worked extremely hard. During the summer when we had our 25 days of practice he kept getting better and more confident and he has kept improving during the season. He’s a very good route runner and a student of the game. Hs should be on college people’s radar after the year he has put together.”
Desherow also cited his offensive coordinator, assistant coach Tyler Vradenburg, for being instrumental in establishing an attack that is effective in the air and on the ground.
“Week after week Tyler does a really good job,” Desherow said.
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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.