Senior Drake Johnson is off to a good start this season, and it comes when the team needs him more than ever.

While last year’s kills leader Jack Howard has yet to play a game with an ankle injury, Johnson’s been the go-to offensive player for the Ramblers. In Saturday’s 25-19, 16-25, 30-28 win over Metea Valley that earned Loyola third place in the Silver bracket at Wheaton Warrenville South’s invitational, the 6-foot-7 right-side hitter totaled a team-best 15 kills to go with two blocks and one ace.

Johnson, who had 44 kills in five matches, was selected to the all-tournament team. For the season, he leads the Ramblers (7-6, 1-0 Catholic Blue) with 102 kills. Johnson also earned all-tournament team honors at Vernon Hills, where Loyola took seventh. He had 13 kills in a 25-23, 17-25, 25-21 win over Prospect.

“He’s been phenomenal,” Loyola head coach Lionel Ebeling said. “He’s by far the best right-side I’ve seen in the state this year. When he’s in, no one can stop him.”

With Howard, a 6-5 junior outside hitter, sidelined, Ebeling has had to shuffle players around. Senior Matt Wiertel has moved from middle to outside hitter, and sophomore John Hitt, normally a setter, is playing outside and right-side hitter.

“It’s not our ideal lineup, but we’ve done well,” Ebeling said. “Other than Drake, everybody is playing slightly out of position, but we still have been competitive. There’s not a lot of separation between us and the top teams. That’s very encouraging for when we get Jack back.”

According to Ebeling, a pleasant surprise has been senior middle Clark Winkler, who was on the JV team last year and got an opportunity to play this season in Howard’s absence. Against Metea Valley, Winkler had seven kills and three blocks.

“Clark has been an unsung hero,” Ebeling said. “We didn’t know what to expect from him, but he has been our most dominant middle. It’s awesome to see.”

Freshman libero Ryan Merk is another player who’s stood out in the early part of the season, Ebeling said.

“You think of him as a defensive specialist, but he’s someone who’s started our offense more than half of the time,” Ebeling said. “His passing has been amazing. He’s really playing with a lot of confidence.”

Loyola plays Niles North at home Thursday. The Ramblers have a conference game Tuesday on the road against St. Francis.

Ebeling said he hopes to have Howard back for Downers Grove South’s invitational April 20.