By Maddie Lee
DEKALB — As the clock ran down the final seconds, a tide of red jerseys spilled onto the field from the sideline. Ramblers players and coaches jumped and yelled and embraced. For the first time since 1993, Loyola Academy was the state champion.
After reaching the playoffs the previous 12 years without winning the title, Loyola took home the championship trophy Saturday following a 41-0 win over Marist High School at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium.
The lopsided score reflected a lopsided season in which the Ramblers (14-0) not only won every game, but won all but two by four touchdowns or more. The two closer games came in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Loyola beat Homewood-Flossmoor 34-28 and then slipped past Palatine with a 24-22 win.
Coach John Holecek said this team is the most dominant he has ever seen. He often pulled starters such as senior quarterback Emmett Clifford and senior running back Dara Laja in the fourth quarter.
“Some of these guys get robbed out of the personal awards because their statistics aren’t crazy,” Holecek said. “I’m sure these guys don’t mind in retrospect.”
Leading 7-0 entering the second quarter, the Ramblers blew open the game on Laja touchdown runs of nine and six yards and Clifford’s nine-yard TD pass to senior wide receiver Jonah Isaac to lead 27-0 at halftime.
Laja, who broke the Loyola career rushing record during the regular season, ran for a game-high 152 yards Saturday. Junior tight end/wide receiver/short-yardage quarterback Jake Marwede ran for second-half touchdowns of two and one yards and caught four passes for 83 yards. Clifford was 16–for-24 passing for 195 yards with one interception.
Ramblers senior defensive lineman Ben LeRoy said the key to handling Marist on offense was stopping senior quarterback Brendan Skalitzky as a rusher and forcing him into “predictable passing situations.”
“If we got after him every play, then he wasn’t going to want to run after taking so many hits,” he said.
Skalitzky rushed 13 times for just 17 rushing yards, which was still the most of any RedHawk. He was 13-for-32 passing for 176 yards with one interception, connecting with senior Darshon McCullough six times for 113 yards. Skalitzky was sacked five times.
“State was the ultimate goal,” Laja said. “Anything less would have actually been a disappointment to the season.”
Last season, the Ramblers lost to eventual state champion Stevenson High School 24-21 in the second round of the playoffs. Loyola was seeded first this year.
Holecek said he was a little worried about his defense entering this season because the offense was easily moving on it during preseason practices.
“These guys were just tearing us apart, and we didn’t realize how good our offense was until those first couple weeks,” Holecek said. “Then we realized, ok, so we’re not that bad on defense; these guys are that good.”
While the Ramblers celebrated after Saturday’s game, Marist silently walked off the field.
The RedHawks (9-5) were seeded No. 23. They had gone 5-4 before the playoffs and finished sixth in the East Suburban Catholic Conference. They made it through the championship through a series of upsets — both by them and a couple of their eventual opponents. Marist itself eliminated the Nos. 7, 10,15 and 30 seeds, in that order.
Still, Marist coach Pat Dunne said his players expected to make it to the championship all along.
“They are unbelievably tough; their work ethic is off the charts,” Dunne said. “Outside of our walls, it might have been a different feeling, but within this team, without a doubt, every kid (was) believing — every player, every coach.”