Loyola Academy’s Beau Desherow has set the gold standard for first-year coaches.
His Ramblers climaxed their perfect season on Saturday, Nov. 25, in Hancock Stadium by defeating previously undefeated Lincoln-Way East 25-16 in their IHSA Class 8A state championship rematch.
Picking up where John Holecek, Loyola’s coach for 17 seasons, left off, the Ramblers won their 19th straight game in capturing the state title for the fifth time in school history and doing it back-to-back for the first time.
“Going in we knew our offense was going to be younger and we would have to rely on our defense to bail us out at times,” Desherow said. “We hit the ground running in Grand Rapids against Central Catholic. After that (season-opening) game (a 45-7 triumph), I knew we had something special here. It kept building every week.”
Just as they did in the 2022 championship game that they won 13-3, the Ramblers struck for a touchdown at the outset. Last year they did it on the first play of the game.
This time they started from their own 20-yard line after a touchback on the opening kickoff and — attacking both on the ground and in the air — took seven plays to make it to the end zone with just 89 seconds elapsed. The touchdown came on a 15-yard pass up the middle from Ryan Fitzgerald to fellow junior Brendan Loftus and senior Michael Baker kicked the extra point.
Playing against a powerhouse that had hitherto held opponents to 5.6 points per game, hadn’t allowed more than 14 points and allowed 26 points in their previous seven games combined, the Ramblers increased their lead to 13-0 on Fitzgerald’s 2-yard run up the middle with 17 seconds to play in the first quarter.
“We put in a lot of preparation time with our coaches this week,” Fitzgerald said. “We wanted one-on-one matchups.”
“They knew our weaknesses and they hit them hard,” said Conner Durkin, the Griffins’ outstanding senior linebacker who has been a starter for three seasons. “They caught us on our heels.”
But after Baker’s extra-point attempt following the second touchdown was blocked by junior Caden O’Rourke, Lincoln-Way East battled back in the second quarter, going on an 80-yard touchdown drive spearheaded by the passing and running of senior quarterback Braden Tischer.
“Early on they stopped our run game so we decided to start passing and spread the field a little more, Tischer said.
The 16-play drive ended when Tischer tossed a 2-yard TD pass to junior Trey Zvonar, son of coach Rob Zvonar. Senior RJ Mensching kicked the extra point, shaving the Griffins’ deficit to six points.
Loyola promptly answered with an eight-play 80-yard drive highlighted by Fitzgerald’s passing. His 32-yard pass to his primary receiver, senior Nicholas Arogundade, produced the touchdown, and Baker kicked the extra point, putting the Ramblers on top 20-7 with 13 seconds remaining in the first half.
“Any time this season we faced adversity we didn’t get flustered,” Fitzgerald pointed out. “We kept our composure.”
In the fourth quarter, junior Drew MacPherson’s 12-yard run gave the Ramblers an insurance touchdown.
With 7:23 remaining in the contest, Tischer threw a 15-yard pass to senior Cade Serauskis for the Griffins’ second touchdown and then scrambled for a two-point conversion.
It proved to be irrelevant. In their next possession the Ramblers took some time off the clock before being held on downs at the Lincoln-Way East 37. The Griffins then penetrated to the Loyola 38 but in the face of a strong pass rush threw four incompletions in a row, giving the football back to the Ramblers who proceeded to kill the remaining 48 seconds on the clock.
“I want to take my hat off to Loyola,” coach Zvonar said at the pos-game press conference. “They have unbelievable football players and they’re unbelievably well-coached.
“We’re 13-1 two years in a row; we’re just going to have to stop playing Loyola. I’m proud of our team. Our seniors know nothing but the state championship game and they’ve represented Lincoln-Way East in an exemplary manner.”
Senior strong safety Kenny Langston made it a point to laud defensive coordinator Pete Devine for the role he played in Loyola’s success story, and Arogundade did the same for offensive coordinator Tyler Vradenburg.
In the forefront on defense for the Ramblers was senior outside linebacker Jack McGrath with seven solo and five assisted tackles. Junior defensive end/defensive tackle Connor Sullivan (six tackles) played a strong supporting role as did three seniors: linebacker Colin Scheid, tackle Joe Kelly and tackle Davidson Hagedorn (all with five).
On offense, Fitzgerald and MacPherson were the players who had the biggest impact. Fitzgerald was 17-for-21 passing for 203 yards and ran 16 times for 89 yards. Showing no vestiges of the third quarter right leg injury in the semifinal victory over York that caused him to leave Hoerster Field on crutches, MacPherson gained 117 yards in 15 rushing attempts and caught 3 passes for 51 yards.
Fitzgerald’s older brother, Jack, was a tight end and co-captain on last year’s team.
According to Ryan: “My brother told me: ‘The only way you can say you’re better than us is if you go 14-0.’ We did that.
In the process in their last regular season game the Ramblers avenged their only 2022 loss by defeating Mount Carmel, which went on to become the Class 7A state championship for the second straight year by defeating Downers Grove North.
“Now, we want to do what Michael Jordan and the Bulls did and three-peat,” Ryan added.
But first Fitzgerald, Loftus, junior free safety standout Donovan Robinson and junior wide receiver Conlon Kane want to make a name for themselves with the Ramblers on the basketball court.
Two days after winning the football state championship they were planning to report to basketball practice.
History in the making
The Ramblers’ state-championship victory marked just the second time that an IHSA Class 8A team won back-to-back titles (Lockport: 2002-’03). It is the fifth state championship for Loyola, which also won in 1993, 2015, 2018 and 2022.
The Ramblers ousted the Griffins for the third straight postseason and fourth time in a row, a streak that began one year after losing to East in the 2017 state championship.
Loyola capped a perfect 14-0 season — just the Ramblers’ second (2015) in the IHSA tournament era (1974).
Loyola’s dominant run in the Class 8A postseason continued. Since 2011, a span of 12 postseasons (no playoffs in 2020-’21), the Ramblers have won four state championships, earned four more runnerup finishes and appeared in two other semifinal games.
Over the past four seasons, including a COVID-shortened spring season, Loyola has amassed a 46-2 record with a two state championships and two unbeaten seasons.
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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.