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No one can accuse the Loyola football team of playing it safe.
The gutsy Ramblers showed the kind of chutzpah that a state championship team needs Saturday afternoon in coming from behind to edge host Stevenson 15-14 in a Class 8A state semifinal that featured temperatures in the low-20s.
Not only did the Ramblers try a fake punt deep in their own territory in the second half (it wound up yielding a first down), they also threw out conventional wisdom with under a minute to play and took on a huge risk.
Loyola, which improves to 12-1 and will take on Naperville Central in the 7 p.m. Class 8A state championship next weekend in DeKalb, scored a touchdown with 1:03 left, and the extra point would have tied the game at 14. But instead of going for the sure thing and setting the stage for overtime, head coach John Holecek sent his offense back onto the field to attempt the two-point conversion.
Quarterback Jack Penn (11-of-19 for 112 yards) scrambled furiously and eventually found Joe Joyce, the same receiver he hit for a 15-yard touchdown pass just moments before.
"I came back to the bench and was just like, 'How did we just call that?' But our coach is just like that," said Joyce, who caught 5 passes on the game. "He wants to win. He didn't want it to go into overtime and he thought we had the best shot right there to get it."
Now, the Ramblers have a shot to get their first football state championship since 1993, when they won the Class 6A title with a 7-0 victory over Downers Grove South. In 2011, Loyola finished second in Class 8A to Bolingbrook.
"I was just telling the guys, 'If it feels this good getting there, I can't imagine what it's going to be like winning it,'" said Joyce, who may have been tackled harder by his teammate after he caught the 2-point conversion than by any defender.
"Our tight end, Joe Dixon, tackled me onto the ground because he didn't want me to drop (the ball)," Joyce said with a laugh. "It was a great play call and it was a designed play to me so I had that sitting in my stomach the whole time (during the timeout prior to the conversion attempt). But it was actually weirdly calm, even as (Penn) was scrambling. Me and Jack always know where we're going to be on the field."
Stevenson, which closes out its season with a 10-3 record, got the ball back with 58 seconds remaining but wasn't able to cross midfield. A penalty derailed the Patriots and an interception wound up sealing the deal for good.
"Sometimes it just doesn't go your way," said Stevenson junior receiver Cameron Green, who caught a touchdown pass and hauled in 5 total passes for a game-high 54 receiving yards. "We played as hard as we possibly could, we just didn't get the win.
"I'm not surprised (Loyola went for the 2-point conversion). You've got to do whatever you can do to win the game. They executed at the end and we fell short on a couple of plays."
The Patriots took a 14-7 lead with 5:42 left in the game after cornerback Sam Oriatti intercepted a Penn pass deep in Stevenson territory. One play later, running back Conor Okmin scored on a 9-yard touchdown run.
Stevenson got its first score in the third quarter on a 20-yard pass from quarterback Willie Bourbon (10-of-25, 91 yards, 20 rushes, 77 yards) to Green. Green had a little more room to work with since the defense also had to worry about Michigan State-bound receiver Matt Morrissey (3 catches, 32 yards), who played almost the entire game after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury.
"I'm just so happy to have played with all my teammates. I love them to death," Green said. "They're great, great guys and so are the coaches. They've put us in so many positions this year to make big plays. We were one big family and now that the season is over, I'm going to miss these guys a bunch. I'm just glad to say I was able to play with a team like this."
Loyola got on the board first (with 11:02 left in the second quarter) and carried a 7-0 lead at halftime on a 1-yard touchdown run by Julius Holley, who was a workhorse. He rolled up 94 yards on 27 carries for the Ramblers.