By Maddie Lee
The night of Nov. 28, coach John Holecek stood in front of his kneeling team in the postgame huddle and raised his voice above the screaming fans to tell his players they had achieved something special.
Not only did Loyola Academy (14-0) win the state title that night, it did so on a running clock — which starts after a team leads by 40-plus points in the second half— for the sixth time this season against an Illinois opponent. Those blowouts gave underclassman reserves game experience that can be valuable next season.
Add in two returning regular starters on offense, three on defense, a head coach who has led Loyola to the playoffs every year since he was hired in 2006, and the Ramblers could be in a position to make another postseason run next year.
But can they repeat?
“It’s extremely hard,” said Holecek. “There’s talent, but you never know. I didn’t think this team would be (champions), so I won’t say no or never.”
Since the Illinois High School Association expanded to eight classes in football in 2001, only two Class 8A schools have won back-to-back state championships: Lockport Township (in 2002 and 2003) and Maine South (2008, 2009 and 2010).
The Ramblers are in a traditionally tough conference comprised of five 7A and 8A schools. Every school now in the Catholic Blue has won at least one state title. Mount Carmel, which lost to Loyola 49-21 this year, has 12. Providence Catholic, which finished fourth in the conference this year, has 10, including the 2014 Class 7A title. Brother Rice lost to Palatine in the Class 8A quarterfinals this year.
Loyola survived close games in the state playoffs this year against Palatine and Homewood-Flossmoor, and both figure to be contenders again next season.
“H-F still has plenty of juniors and playmakers on that team,” Holecek said.
Loyola beat Homewood Flossmoor 34-28 in the quarterfinals. The next game, Loyola edged Palatine 24-22, and junior starting quarterback Zach Oles will be back next year.
Loyola will have five returning regular starters next year compared to the four it had going into this season.
In 2015, Ben LeRoy was the only returning defensive starter. The Northern Illinois-bound defensive tackle led the Ramblers in tackles for loss (17 for 119 yards,) sacks (12) and forced fumbles (tied with Jack Hough at three).
The Ramblers will have to replace all the regular starters on the defensive line, but with three starters (junior linebackers Anthony Romano and Graham Repp and junior defensive back Ian Swenson) and two more key reserves (juniors linebacker Mickey Kane and defensive back Ted Falkenhayn) returning, the defense that held opponents to 8.79 points per game should be strong again in 2016.
On offense, Loyola will have to find a new running back to carry the Ramblers’ ground game.
“We really looked at their run game as being a great strength to their team,” said Palatine coach Rick Splitt.
As a two-year starter, Dara Laja holds the Loyola career rushing record (2,995 yards), surpassing the previous mark by 885 yards. The senior running back finished with 1,833 yards on 278 carries this season.
Sophomore Hamid Bullie and junior Kyle Rock will compete for Laja’s spot. Bullie only had five carries in 2015, but gained 57 yards. As a backup running back, Rock rushed 64 times for 247 yards.
Like Laja, senior quarterback Emmett Clifford — who was voted first-team all-state by the Illinois Coaches Association — rarely saw a fourth quarter. That gave junior Quinn Boyle a chance. Often coming in with a running clock, Boyle was 23-of-32 passing for 251 yards.
Also returning will be tight end/wide receiver/wildcat quarterback Jake Marwede and wide receiver David Terrell. Both juniors got the majority of their touches in the second half of the season. Marwede finished with a combined eight touchdowns rushing and receiving, and Terrell had 30 catches for 315 yards.
Two starters on the offensive line will return, juniors Jack Badovinac and John Brekke.
“We had an offensive line that stayed healthy for the most part, and played together all year,” said Ramblers assistant strength coach and statistician Mike Zielinski, “which was probably what our success was due to on the offensive side.”
Another big reason the Ramblers were so dominant this year, according to Holecek, was team chemistry.
He said his players were “kids that worked and showed their character, that played together better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Duplicating that could be difficult. The result this year was clear.
“You could tell they played for each other,” said Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti. “I saw them as a team with no weaknesses.”