FIRST DOWN: Hugh Kelly (pictured above) is another example of why Loyola has been an elite program for more than a decade.

A 6-foot-1, 180-pound junior safety, Kelly started his first career playoff game — and only second this season — in Saturday’s 28-7 win over Hinsdale Central in the second round of the Class 8A state playoffs. He made his presence known immediately, recording a tackle for a 2-yard loss on the game’s second play. He finished with seven tackles.

Kelly was called on after senior cornerback John Lynch hurt himself in the first round and didn’t get cleared until late last week. Versatile senior safety Charlie Largay slid over to cornerback.

Loyola head coach John Holecek said Kelly was on the Ramblers’ radar last season.

“The kid is determined and serious,” Holecek said. “He’s a good football player who plays behind Charlie and [junior safety] Jake Gonzalez. He’s a tremendous character kid who comes out and lays it on the line.”

Before Saturday, Kelly started in Week 2 when Largay was out with an injury. Other than that, he hasn’t played much this season, save for contributing to special teams. But that never stopped him from preparing like a starter, he said.

“I always practiced like I’m going to play,” Kelly said. “You always want to be prepared. The only real difference last week was I got a lot more reps than usual. The coaches got me ready, so it wasn’t too difficult. I feel very confident out there.”

Kelly’s brother, sophomore Christo Kelly, has been a starter on the offensive line for most of this season. They both are products of St. Francis Xavier in Wilmette.

“What he’s done has been very impressive,” Hugh said. “It’s awesome to see.”

SECOND DOWN: Injuries have turned Loyola’s offensive line into a revolving door of players this season.

But the Ramblers have had the same lineup for both playoff games after senior Josh Green’s return. He’s been joined by Kelly at right guard, senior Ryan Hagedorn at center, sophomore Peter Gianaris at left guard and senior Charlie Gross at left tackle.

“Chemistry is definitely a big part of the offensive line,” Hagedorn said. “Part of the reason for last year’s success was those five guys were mostly there all year.”

The Ramblers have averaged 6.7 yards per play in two playoff wins. Most of their production has come on the ground, having run for 534 yards on 97 carries against New Trier and Hinsdale Central.

“We’ve had a good game plan the last two weeks and executed it well,” Hagedorn said. “We should have finished better against New Trier, but we made sure that didn’t happen against Hinsdale Central.”

The Hinsdale Central game was Green’s sixth of the season and first since Week 6. Senior Chris Betz filled in during his absence, further evidence of his invaluableness to the Ramblers.

“Chris is a great player and a hard-worker,” Hagedorn said. “He will do whatever.”

THIRD DOWN: Holecek marveled at senior linebacker Anthony Rodriguez’s ability to rise to the occasion.

Although a bruised left knee kept Rodriguez out of practice most of last week and sidelined him for the start of Saturday’s game, it didn’t stop him from making an impact in the win over the Red Devils.

“We should call him Lazarus,” Holecek said. “He heals quickly.”

Entering the game late in the second quarter, Rodriguez finished with four tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack.

FOURTH DOWN: Loyola is in the quarterfinals of the Class 8A state playoffs for the third consecutive season. No other program can make that claim.

What’s more, the Ramblers are seeking their eighth appearance in the semifinals in nine seasons.

Six of the other seven quarterfinalists — Edwardsville, Lincoln-Way East, Maine South, Marist, Naperville Central, Oswego — this season are making their second trip to the final eight in the last three years. Minooka is in the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2010.

Photo credit: Geoff Scott