York pushes defending champ Loyola to the brink, falls short in rematch
From the moment York's undefeated campaign was ended by Loyola last fall, the Dukes made it their mission to reach the state title game this season.
And though they ultimately fell short of that goal Saturday, it certainly wasn't for a lack of effort.
Pushing the defending Class 8A champs and undefeated Ramblers to the brink in the semifinal rematch, York saw its best-ever two-year stretch of football come to an end with a 23-14 loss in Wilmette.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald accounted for all three scores for the Ramblers (13-0), who overcame a 14-3 second quarter deficit. The junior ran in a pair of touchdowns, the first a 2-yarder right before halftime that gave the Ramblers the lead for good at 16-14 and the second a 26-yarder late in the third.
Fitzgerald, who threw for 182 yards and rushed for 67 more, also connected with Nicholas Arogundade for a 40-yard TD.
"Our coaches are always telling us, don't let yourselves feel the pressure," said Fitzgerald about battling back from being down early. "We do a great job of calming ourselves down and figuring it out. I thought our O-line did a great job of figuring things out.
"Our O-line has been working their butts off all year and that showed with the response they had from the first quarter on."
Sean Winton threw a pair of touchdown passes for the visiting Dukes (11-2), finding Fintan Helm for a 12-yard score and George Kekos for an 8-yarder in the first 13 minutes of action. The senior QB had 216 yards passing with Luke Mailander hauling in eights balls for 114 yards. Helm had seven catches for 53 yards.
"I am unbelievably proud of my guys," Mailander said. "We obviously hit a road bump in Week 7 [a loss to Glenbard West] of the season but we all came together. So much credit goes to Coach Fitz [York coach Mike Fitzgerald] and every coach and every player.
"There were times I was like, 'Can we get back here?' That standard we set was so high last year. But we talked from day one of the offseason, this is where we are at and this is where we have to get to. Everyone stepped up and everyone should be so proud of themselves. I'm going to miss everyone."
Jake Melion added 71 rushing yards on 15 carries for York. Defensively, Eddy Sica had an interception and Joey Maucieri and Jack Trautmann each contributed sacks.
"This season meant a lot," Melion said. "There was a lot of pressure coming into the year about returning back here [to the semifinals]. And we didn't want to just come back, we wanted to win the whole thing. It definitely burns that we didn't win but I'm so proud of my teammates. They are the No. 1 team in the state and we battled them all game.
"I've been playing with a lot of these guys since fourth grade. We grew up together, we do everything together. It's a family away from home."
In becoming only the third team in program history to reach 11 victories, joining the 2006 and last year's squads, York also rewrote the program's offensive record books this season. Winton (most passing yards in a season), Melion (rushing yards) and Mailander (receiving yards) all set new individual marks.
"It's human nature to kind of get complacent and coast when you have success," said Fitzgerald, whose team is 23-3 over the last two years. "But this group never did that. They went right to work after last year's loss to Loyola.
"They wanted to win a state title. It's one thing to talk about it, it's another to act on it. All the time they put in is why they made it back here. And my coaching staff is unbelievable. How they get our guys prepared is special. It's definitely a program effort."
Arogundade finished with five catches for 79 yards for the Ramblers, who will once again play Lincoln-Way East in the championship game next Saturday in Normal. Finn Miller ran for 62 yards on seven attempts and Drew MacPherson caught two passes for 72 yards and also rushed for 36.
"York is a really talented team," Loyola coach Beau Desherow said, "and they are well-coached. One thing that really stood out to me, they have some very explosive players."