Glencoe, Sports

Pregame Prep: Background, stats and more for Loyola Academy and Lincoln-Way East’s third state-championship meeting

‘Tis the season for tradition, and for Illinois football fans, a tradition has emerged in IHSA’s largest class.

Get ready for another playoff serving of Loyola Academy and Lincoln-East. The 8A powers, which sport identical 13-0 records, will meet on Saturday, Nov. 25, in the state championship for the third time since 2017 and in the postseason for the fifth time in the past six postseasons.

“You look at a team from top to bottom that is very, very well-coached, always in right position,” Loyola coach Beau Desherow said in a media call on Monday. “Their kids are extremely tough. You don’t see any weaknesses really. They’re 13-0 for a reason.”

East is a relatively new school that opened in 2001 when Lincoln-Way District 210 split into two high schools. The district eventually added two more high school schools, causing LW East to compete in Class 7A until 2016 when one of the schools, Lincoln-Way North, closed and with the enrollment hike, the Griffins jumped to 8A.

Loyola has a 84.6 winning percentage (198-36) across its last 18 seasons, qualifying for the playoffs every season and advancing to eight state-title games with victories in 2015, 2018 and 2022. The program has never won back-to-back state titles. Desherow, a longtime Loyola assistant coach, took over for coach John Holecek after last season, and will coach in the state-title game to cap his first season.

Lincoln-Way East boasts an 84.4 winning percentage (232-43) in its history — 22 seasons all under coach Rob Zvonar. The Griffins, who have made the playoffs each season, have played in six state championship games, earning titles in 2005, 2017 and 2019.

Loyola has won the previous three meetings: a 13-3 win in the 2022 state championship, 3-0 triumph in a 2021 quarterfinal and a 24-16 victory in a 2018 semifinal contest. The Griffins took down the Ramblers 23-14 in the 2017 state championship game.

The Ramblers and Griffins, as well as 7A’s Mt. Carmel and 6A’s East St. Louis, have sat atop state rankings all of this season and proved why on the field. Loyola finished the regular season 9-0 with its biggest victory coming against the Caravan to clinch the Catholic League Blue championship. The Griffins also dominated their schedule en route to a 9-0 regular season. The Griffins scored their most notable win in Week 2, a 14-13 result against 8A semifinalist Batavia.

The Ramblers’ recent victories have added a wrinkle to this year’s matchup, as the Griffins are hyped for potential payback. LW East star junior defensive end Caden O’Rourke told reporters after a playoff game, “We have a real grudge against Loyola. They’ve taken us out [of the playoffs] the past two years. We want to finish them this year.”


Points Per Game35.336.1
Opp. Points Per Game8.7*5.2
Avg. Point Differential+26.6+30.9
Rushing Yards2,2622,965
Passing Yards2,3131,818
QuarterbackRyan Fitzgerald: 1,852 yards, 18 TDs/1 INT; 545 rush yards, 13 TDsBraden Tischer: 1,672 yards, 17 TDs; 360 rush yards, 3 TDs
Running backsDrew Macpherson: 738 yards, 8 TDs
Finn Miller: 588 yards, 8 TDS
Nuri Muhammad: 1,307 yards, 20 TDs
Zion Gist: 809 yards, 12 TDs
Leading ReceiversNicholas Arogundade: 671 yards, 7 TDs
Macpherson: 464 yards, 2 TDs
Ryan Usher: 433 yards, 6 TDs
DJ Richardson: 355 yards, 3 TDs
Leading DefendersQuinn Herbert (LB): 80 tackles, 3 INT
Colin Scheid (LB): 78 tackles
Jack McGrath (LB): 62 tackles
Connor Durkin (LB): 122 tackles, 8 for loss
JT Poynton (LB): 112 tackles


Loyola quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald (15) has thrown for 18 scores this year and rushed for 13 more.

On offense, both teams have shown the ability to run and pass the football; though, Loyola’s attack has shown true balance with 2,262 rushing yards and and 2,313 passing. Junior quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald, the Catholic League Blue’s offensive player of the year, gets it done in both categories and has rushed for 545 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns — many coming in pivotal moments.

“Ryan as far as leadership ability is right up there. He is his own man,” Desherow said. “He’s different than previous quarterbacks we’ve had. His toughness is something that stands out to me. … His decision making ability is great, especially for a junior.”

Senior receiver Nick Arogundade (42 catches, 671 yards) has emerged as a well-rounded and big-play pass-catcher, while junior Drew Macpherson is a versatile back with more than 700 rushing yards and 450 receiving. Macpherson injured his knee in the Ramblers’ semifinal victory against York and his availability in the state championship is unclear. Senior Finn Miller has found success as a complementary back, rushing for nearly 600 yards and scoring eight times.

The offensive line has been another positive for the Ramblers, anchored by senior guards Kyle Balatzar and Joe Kelly, the latter of whom is a rare two-way payer for Loyola.

Senior kicker and receiver Mike Baker is a huge part of the Ramblers success. Baker was named All-State and has converted 13 field goals, including one of 47 yards.

Loyola has only turned the ball over three times — two fumbles, one interception — on the season.

“You don’t find these types of complete football teams really ever, you could put Mount Carmel up there,” Zvonar said in the media call. “I don’t know who else measures up to them in terms of the type of team they put together year in and year out. It’s extremely impressive.”

The Griffins have leaned heavily on their ground attack behind powerful center Josh Janowski, a University of Iowa commit. Senior tailback Nuri Muhammad has racked up 1,300 yard with 20 touchdowns, while Zion Gist has added 809 rushing yards with 12 more TDs.

East senior quarterback and returning starter Braden Tischer has hit 61% of his passes en route to 1,672 yards and 17 touchdown throws against just two interceptions. Tischer works the ball around to several receivers — four of whom have 18 or more receptions this season, led by Ryan Usher with 29 catches for 433 yards. Stephan Gardner Gist is a big-play threat in space.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Ramblers and Griffins are the best in the business. Both teams give up fewer than 9 points per game. And since each team’s reserves see plenty of field time in regular lopsided games, the averages for both teams’ first units are actually lower than their respective official averages (Loyola: 8.7; LWE: 5.2).

The Ramblers find their defensive success thanks to leadership at all three levels, said Desherow. Seniors Kenny Langston, Matty Vallace and Emanuel Ofosu anchor the defensive backfield. Colin Schied, Jack McGrath, Ethan Hogg (edge rusher) and Quinn Herbert are seniors linebackers; and seniors Kelly, Davidson Hagerdorn and Jimmy McGovern (the league’s defensive player of the year) lead a robust defensive line.

Sophomore Kai Calcutt and juniors Connor Sullivan and Thomas Ghislandi make weekly impacts as part of the defensive line rotation.

“The strength of our defense starts up front,” Desherow said. “The defensive line has set the tone for us all year.”

Lincoln-Way East’s front seven is extremely production. Linebackers Connor Durkin, the Griffins all-time leader tackler, and JT Poynton have tallied more than 100 tackles apiece. Junior edge Caden O’Rourke is among the best in the state and drawing interest from power-five colleges. He is flanked by senior standout David Wuske.

The Griffins have given up just six points in their four postseason victories — a touchdown to Barrington in East’s 49-6 semifinal win.

“It’s all gelling together and it’s going to take a Herculean effort against the Ramblers,” Zvonar said. “All I know is we’re going to leave it all on the field and let what happens happen.”

joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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