Loyola doesn't let Naperville Central get started
With about a minute left on the clock and its 2021 season, Naperville Central coach Mike Ulreich was still exhorting his charges.
"We gotta finish," Ulreich yelled to his defense, which played lights out in the second half against Loyola, the top-ranked team in Class 8A.
It may have been a Pyrrhic victory, but the Redhawks' defense held on Loyola's final possession to hold the red-hot Ramblers to just a field goal in the second half of their 36-7 second-round playoff victory.
"In the locker room (at halftime) we just talked about how that wasn't us in the first half," senior defensive end Brian McInerney said. "If we came out and stopped them, we could prove to everyone that we were better than we were in the first half. We knew it would be a stretch to get that win, but we couldn't let our pride down. I'm so proud of the defense and everybody."
Nearby, senior receiver Reggie Fleurima had a similar point of view.
"In this program we don't really believe in moral victories," said Fleurima, a Northwestern recruit who had 5 receptions for 42 yards. "In the end they showed up and took it to us. Hats off to them, they're a great program, and they showed it today."
For as dazzling as the second half was for Naperville Central, that's how tough the first was. Loyola piled up 247 offensive yards in the first half, which led to a 33-0 halftime lead.
Insurmountable? Maybe. But the Redhawks didn't care. The goal was to finish, and finish strong, which they did. They stopped the Ramblers cold on the first two drives of the second half, not letting them get past their own 20.
Naperville Central got the ball back at the 7:17 mark and marched 64 yards, 30 of which came on two Loyola personal fouls. The drive culminated with a 1-yard run by senior back Tristen Hall.
It was a start. On Loyola's ensuing drive, the defense came up big again, this time on an interception by senior inside linebacker Ethan Pytlak.
Suddenly, there was a light flickering deep in a dark tunnel.
But it was extinguished when the Redhawks got stopped at the Loyola 39-yard line. Loyola added a 21-yard field goal on its next drive to set the final score.
Naperville Central got as far as midfield on its last drive.
"I think in the second half, we just figured out what we would work with controlling the ball more, controlling the tempo," said senior quarterback Owen Prucha, who finished with 97 yards on 13-for-29 passing. "Our defense definitely controlled it."
Like McInerney, Fleurima and Prucha, Hall is a senior and will remember everything about his football experience, including youth football. Like the other guys, though, it was tough to say goodbye.
"I grew up with every single one of them, they were just like my neighbors," Hall said of his teammates. "I've known them since middle school. I've known some of them since elementary school.
"I wouldn't change anything."