Loyola goes to the air to reach 8A semifinals
After running the football past two playoff opponents, Loyola Academy utilized quarterback Jake Stearney's decision-making and passing to advance to the Class 8A semifinals.
There, they'll find a York quarterback who used his legs to reach the same destination.
Loyola beat Lyons Township 30-17 at Hoerster Field on Nov. 12, advancing to the semifinal round for the 11th time since 2009. The Ramblers seek their fourth state title and first since 2018.
"I didn't think we played bad, we didn't play great, but in the playoffs you move on," said Loyola coach John Holecek.
Stearney, the Colgate-bound senior, completed 15 of 22 passes for 170 yards and 4 touchdowns without throwing an interception.
Although No. 6 seed Loyola (11-1) ran for 128 yards against No. 14 Lyons (9-3), led by Luke Foster's 60 yards rushing, it was the first time in three playoff games the Ramblers did not score a rushing touchdown.
"Jake can audible when he wants, so if they're going to load the box we're going to throw," Holecek said.
Co-offensive player of the year in the CCL/ESCC Blue, Stearney passed for touchdowns of 12 and 27 yards to Declan Forde for a 14-0 lead over Lyons after one quarter. The all-conference Forde caught 4 passes for 79 yards including his 12th and 13th touchdown receptions of the season.
Leading 14-3 after a Lyons field goal early in the second quarter, Loyola went up 21-3 at halftime on Stearney's 30-yard touchdown pass to Quinn Foley.
Lyons crept within 21-10 early at 9:22 of the third quarter, when the Ramblers reeled off 9 straight points on Spencer Leadbetter's 10-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter, and Mike Baker's 36-yard field goal early in the fourth.
Loyola will visit No. 2 seed York at 1 p.m. Nov. 19 in Elmhurst. The unbeaten West Suburban Silver conference winner, which beat fellow 8A semifinalist Glenbard West 17-13 in September, set a program record with its 12th victory of the season in a 24-10 win over No. 7 Palatine on Nov. 12.
Holecek said York's defense plays much man-to-man coverage and puts a lot of defenders toward the line of scrimmage to "dare you to run."
It's York's third semifinal appearance and first since 2006 when the Dukes beat Glenbrook South 34-7 in the second round. York has not won a state football championship.
Mike Fitzgerald coaches York. Prior to coming to Elmhurst he coached at St. Francis, leading the Spartans to a surprise Class 6A semifinal appearance in 2014. Fitzgerald took the St. Francis position after serving as Marist's offensive coordinator, though he had moved on by the time Loyola beat Marist 41-0 in the 2015 8A championship.
Against Palatine, York senior quarterback Matt Vezza ran a reported season-high 28 times for 153 yards with touchdowns of 7 and 21 yards.
Coincidentally, in the second round York beat No. 18 seed Marist, 27-21, as Vezza ran 26 times for 146 yards.
"He's the fastest guy on the field, so when he has the ball you're never going to be at ease," Holecek said.
York entered the playoffs allowing an average of 7.3 points per game, tied for second-lowest among Class 8A playoff qualifiers.
Holecek said the keys for Ramblers success include limiting Vezza's big plays and making York earn its points.
"The home run threat is there, and the quarterback has a couple good receivers. Just making them try to drive, and maybe make them turn the ball over as well, which would help us," the coach said.
"But certainly our sustaining drives that come up with points. They're not going to allow you to run a whole lot, so we're going to have to be selective and smart. They don't give up a lot of points."