FIRST DOWN: The Ramblers head into the postseason on a three-game winning streak after Saturday’s 28-7 win over Providence Catholic at home. Loyola (6-3) is the 19th seed in Class 8A and travels to play No. 14 Minooka (7-2) at 6 p.m. on Saturday. The last time the Ramblers played a road game in the first round of the playoffs was in 2006 when they finished 6-3. Loyola lost 13-8 to New Trier in John Holecek’s first season as head coach.
But the Ramblers most likely aren’t an opponent many teams want to see, especially in the first round. In the state playoffs for the 16th year in a row, Loyola has played in three consecutive Class 8A state finals, capturing the championship in 2015. The Ramblers have won at least one playoff game every year since 2007 and are 33-11 in the Class 8A postseason under Holecek. They have one state title and four runner-up finishes since 2011.
Catholic Blue champion Brother Rice (9-0) is the No. 1 and one of three undefeated teams in Class 8A. Oswego (9-0) is the No. 3 seed and a potential second-round opponent for Loyola. Lincoln-Way East (9-0) is No. 2 seed and also on the same half of the bracket as the Ramblers. The Griffins beat them 23-14 in last year’s Class 8A state final at Northern Illinois University.
After starting 0-2 in the Catholic Blue, Loyola finished third at 2-2. Four of the teams in the league qualified for the state playoffs. In addition to Brother Rice and the Ramblers in Class 8A, Providence Catholic (5-4) is in Class 7A, while Montini (8-1) is in Class 5A.
SECOND DOWN: Minooka, a member of the Southwest Prairie Conference, is back in the playoffs for the second consecutive season. A year ago, the Indians finished 9-3 and advanced to the Class 8A quarterfinals.
John Belskis is in his first season as Minooka’s head coach, but he’s no rookie. He coached at Downers Grove South from 1989-2013, winning a Class 8A state title in 2001 and placing second in Class 6A in 1993. He went 201-62 in 24 seasons with the Mustangs.
Two of Belskis’ assistant coaches — Terry McCombs and Bob Williams — were longtime head coaches, too. McCombs was Minooka’s head coach last year.
Winners of eight in a row, the Indians ended the regular season with a 24-7 win over Oswego East (7-2), the No. 13 seed in Class 8A. Minooka averages 30.9 points a game and allows 13.2.
Offensively, they are led by junior quarterback Sam Lehr, who completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,132 yards and 11 touchdowns. He spreads the ball around as three players have at least 13 catches.
The running game is by committee. Junior Noah Ellens leads the team in rushing yards and TDs, but senior Davonte Welcher ran for 120 yards and scored twice in last week’s win.
“They do a lot of things to try and catch you off guard,” Holecek said. “The have a couple of athletes, including the quarterback, who can make plays.”
Junior defensive lineman Jake Shipla headlines the defense. He’s first on the team in tackles, 19 of which have gone for a loss.
“They are a solid team that is well-coached,” Holecek said.
THIRD DOWN: As usual, Loyola’s defense was a strength for the team during the regular season. The Ramblers turned in one of their best performances in Saturday’s 28-7 win over Providence Catholic. They limited the Celtics to 91 yards and no offensive points. For the season, Loyola allowed 14.2 points and 206.3 yards a game.
Senior inside linebackers Mike Kadus and Sam Schierloh (pictured above) are two reasons for the unit’s success. Both first-year starters, Kadus and Schierloh are tied for second on the team with 78 tackles apiece. Kadus has five tackles for loss and two sacks, while Schierloh has three tackles for loss and one sack.
“Both are super intelligent and have been a pleasure to watch,” Holecek said. “I rarely have to correct them. When they do make a mistake, they know right away that they did. Both are physical, and they are very good at reading what an offense is trying to do.”
Senior safety Jake Gonzalez leads the Ramblers with 98 tackles. Senior defensive lineman Eddie Eastman is first with five sacks, while senior linebacker Armoni Dixon is tops with nine tackles for loss. Senior cornerback Michael Byrne’s three interceptions are the most on the team.
FOURTH DOWN: Former Loyola head coach Bob Spoo died Oct. 15 in Rockford at the age of 80. He led the Ramblers from 1967-72, compiling a record of 51-9-2, highlighted by an 11-0 mark in 1969.
Spoo transitioned to coaching in college, most notably at Eastern Illinois University, where he spent 25 seasons. The Panthers went 144-131-1 and qualified for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs nine times under Spoo. Known for developing quarterbacks, he mentored Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo while at EIU.
A St. Rita graduate, Spoo played quarterback at Purdue.
“What always struck me was that he said the most enjoyment that he had in coaching was at Loyola Academy,” Holecek told the Chicago Tribune. “He enjoyed being here immensely, and they were really successful in his time.”
Photo credit: Geoff Scott