Loyola Academy will try to defend its IHSA Class 8A state championship when first-year coach Beau Desherow’s Ramblers engage in a rematch with 2022 runnerup Lincoln-Way East in Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 25.
Coming from behind for only the third time this season and surmounting their biggest deficit, the Ramblers extended their two-season winning streak to 18 games by defeating York 23-14 in their semifinal struggle on Nov. 18 at Hoerster Field.
Loyola took a 3-0 lead on Michael Baker’s 25-yard field goal midway through the first quarter but Sean Winton’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Fintan Helm later in the quarter and his 8-yard pass to George Kekos with in the second quarter enabled the Dukes to surge ahead 14-3.
Junior quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald spearheaded the comeback, throwing a 40-yard pass to senior Nicholas Arogundade in the second quarter, running 2 yards for a touchdown later in the quarter to give the Ramblers the lead and then running 26 yards for the final touchdown with four seconds to play in the third quarter.
“We came into the season off a state championship and a 13-1 season,” Fitzgerald said. “That wasn’t our team. We had to build our own legacy. We’ve pretty much done that. We’re 13-0 and have one more to go.”
Fitzgerald, who didn’t play on the 2022 team, completed 11 of 15 passes for 182 yards and ran 13 times for 76 yards in steering the Ramblers back to the title game.
His primary receiver has been Nicholas Arogundade, a tall wide receiver used sparingly last season. In the York victory, he caught five passes for 79 yards and the touchdown, giving him 42 receptions 671 yards and seven TDs.
York (11-2) had lost only one game this season after falling to the Ramblers in last year’s semifinals and the Dukes came from Elmhurst to Wilmette determined to avenge that loss.
“They’re a very good team and we knew it was going to be a battle right from the beginning,” Desherow said.
The Dukes took the opening kickoff and advanced from their 27 to their 45 before Quinn Herbert squelched the drive when he picked off a pass for his third interception of the season and returned it to the visitors’ 21. Loyola advanced to the 9-yard line before the defense stiffened and, facing a fourth-and-goal situation at the 8, Desherow called on Baker to kick the field goal.
York retaliated going on an 80-yard scoring drive led by Winton, the school’s single season passing record-holder.
Starting from their own 35, the Ramblers went to the York 15 before Eddy Sica stole Fitzgerald’s broken-up pass before the Dukes drove for their second touchdown to put the Ramblers down by 11 points.
“It felt weird, being down by that much for the first time,” Arogundade said. “I had to lock in. Fitz and I have spent the whole season and we clicked today.”
After his team rallied to regain the lead in the final minute of the first half, Desherow said he and his assistants “made some adjustments” on defense at halftime.
“The first half they were able to throw the ball,’ he pointed out. “The men on our coaching staff — Pete Devine, John Shannon, Mike Dooley, Pete DiStaulo and Tim Feldheim — have been around for a long time. They made the adjustments and our guys went out and took that away.
“Since Day 1 we’ve preached about responding to adversity and our guys did that today.”
The defensive revisions curtailed Winton’s effectiveness and he wound up 23-for-41 for 216 yards.
Jake Melion, the senior running back who established a York single-season rushing record this year, had a hard time making an impact and was limited to 72 yards in 15 rushes with 23 of the yards coming on one play.
The Loyola linemen also neutralized Joe Reiff, the senior two-way lineman who will playing college football at Notre Dame next season.
“I thought we handled their Notre Dame recruit,” said Joe Kelly, the senior lineman who is the only Rambler to do double-duty.
“Connor Sullivan (who plays defensive end and tackle) made a lot of big plays for us and (free safety) Donovan Robinson, who has been makes big plays for us all season, made a huge one today when he blocked that field goal.”
The blocked field goal attempt came in the third quarter after cornerback Ethan Hogg sacked Winton for a 13-yard loss at the Loyola 33, creating a fourth-and-23 situation at the Loyola 33.
If the kicker had been successful, he would have given York a 17-16 lead.
The Ramblers celebrated escaping from the close call by driving 63 yards for their insurance touchdown.
It was a costly drive, however, because on the way their No. 1 running back, junior Drew MacPherson, sustained an injury to his right leg. He left the game after running for 43 yards on 12 carries and catching 2 passes for 72 yards.
MacPherson left Hoerster Field on crutches and his status for the state championship game is uncertain.
If MacPherson is unable to play Desherow has a reliable replacement in star backup Finn Miller, who gained 64 yards in 9 rushes in the semifinal game and was in the forefront in the drive for the first Loyola touchdown.
The Ramblers are going into the championship game averaging 35.3 points per game and holding opponents to an average of 8.6 per-game.
Last season they had a 41.5 points-per-game average and allowed 15.7 points-per-came on defense going into the finale against Lincoln-Way East that they won 13-3.
Like Loyola, Lincoln-Way East is 13-0 this season. After shutting out four straight opponents, Lincoln-Way East was an impressive 49-6 winner in its semifinal game against Barrington, a team that had been averaging 37.3 points per game.
At this time last season Desherow was vice president of admissions and enrollment at Loyola, a position he held since 2019 after returning to his alma mater as an assistant in 2004, two years before John Holecek arrived to become the head coach.
When Holecek retired from coaching after winning a school record 185 games and the last of his three Class 8A state championships during his 17 seasons, he urged Desherow to apply for the job.
“When you lose a phenomenal head coach like John Holecek there is the possibility of a letdown,” Desherow reflected. “But I knew going in we had great kids here and we kept our coaching staff, guys I’d coached with for almost two decades. They’re absolutely the best in the business.”
And prior to the season the already formidable coaching brain trust got a significant addition when former Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is Ryan;s father, joined Desherow’s staff as a volunteer assistant.
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.