IN THE SPOTLIGHT
For the first seven weeks of Loyola Academy’s football season, junior wide receiver Noah Jones had zero catches and one ailing, stubborn left hamstring.
The Ramblers played Providence Catholic on Oct. 13, or Week 8.
Jones was healthy enough to suit up and play.
“Felt great,” the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder said of coming down with his first reception of the season in a 28-3 victory.
The South Loop resident would catch 10 more passes in the ensuing weeks, helping the Ramblers reach the Class 8A state championship for the third year in a row and fifth time in seven years.
Four of the grabs resulted in touchdowns.
Rainy, miserable conditions in a 17-10 state semifinal defeat of host Edwardsville kept him on a sideline on Nov. 18.
Jones returned to action on the biggest stage — Huskie Stadium, on Northern Illinois University’s campus in DeKalb — for the 8A title tilt against Lincoln-Way East on Nov. 25. The night was dry and chilly early and crisp late, with an 8 mph wind.
Jones, undaunted and determined, had a monster night nearly a month after Halloween, hauling in eight passes for 126 yards (15.8 yards per catch) on Brigham Field. He caught a 37-yard toss from senior quarterback Quinn Boyle in the first quarter and snared a 36-yarder on the first drive of the fourth quarter.
Loyola Academy, alas, fell 23-14 and finished with a 12-2 record.
LA’s only other loss in 2017?
To another state champion, Phillips. The eventual 5A champions defeated visiting Loyola Academy 20-14 in the season opener on Aug. 26.
Lincoln-Way East (14-0), which led 7-0 at the half, erased a 14-13, fourth-quarter deficit in a hurry last weekend, tallying the game’s final nine points in a 1:27 span. Griffins sophomore running back/wideout A.J. Henning (17 rushes, 154 yards, 2 touchdowns), blessed with breakneck, 100-yard-dash speed, followed up Dominic Dzioban’s 32-yard field goal with a 42-yard TD sprint up the middle at the 3:44 mark of the fourth quarter.
“It was great having Noah out there,” Boyle said after completing 27-of-44 passes for 305 yards (TD, 2 interceptions) and rushing for a two-yard TD in the fourth quarter.
What would have been greater in Jones’ mind: watching Boyle — one of two Ramblers (with senior defensive lineman Marty Geary) on the 2017 Illinois Football Coaches Association Class 8A all-state first team — end his prep career with a victory in the state championship game.
“I feel terrible we weren’t able to win tonight for Quinn and the rest of the seniors,” said Jones, who received a scholarship offer from Central Michigan University in July. “Quinn is an amazing football player and a great friend. I can’t say enough good things about that kid.”
Minutes earlier, flanked by five of his Ramblers at the post-game presser, LA coach John Holecek had lauded his entire squad for refusing to wilt throughout a trying, injury- and illness-racked season.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” said Holecek, 1-4 in state-championship games and 135-28 (.828) overall after 12 seasons with the program. “Kids filled in … had to fill in, seemingly every week. We had guys who are as tough as can be. Our running back [senior Hamid Bullie] underwent surgery to reconstruct his knee in the offseason and then had to deal with a meniscus tear; one of our [defensive backs, Charles] Largay had mono this week … I could go on and on. Of the guys with me [at the press conference], only two [junior wideout Rory Boos and junior linebacker Armoni Dixon], I think, played the season without an injury.
“We had great kids from great families,” the coach added. “It was a pleasure to coach them.”
Any coach out there want to coach against Henning in the next two seasons? The electric 5-10, 170 pounder stunned Loyola Academy with his 63-yard TD run late in the third quarter. Henning — who had rushed only 29 times for 231 yards before the championship game — took a handoff and bolted to his right, with a couple of Ramblers in pursuit near the Ramblers’ sideline. He then took a sharp left and blazed for a quick six, giving the Griffins a 13-7 lead with 22 seconds left in the frame.
“He’s a heck of a running back, with great speed,” Holecek said. “He hesitates and waits for something to develop — and then explodes. We were in the right place.
“The majority of running backs against us don’t make that run.”
Boyle connected with Boos (8 catches, 84 yards) for a 15-yard TD on LA’s first possession of the second half. The QB had shimmied his shoulders before releasing the pigskin toward a corner in the end zone. Boyle rushed for a two-yard TD — on a fourth-and-goal — to tie it at 13-13 early in the fourth quarter.
Junior kicker Edward Auer made the extra point to give LA its only lead of the game.
Ramblers senior linebacker Anthony Rodriguez stood out defensively with a team-high eight tackles (1 sack, 2 tackles for loss). Dixon dropped ball carriers seven times, including 4.5 for loss, while Pat Daniels, Christopher Scott and Jake Gonzalez had five stops each.
“Our team,” Jones said, “played with so much heart all season. I’ll never forget the atmosphere at this game, with all of the fans, with all of the cheering. The brotherhood we had was special.
“I’m confident we’ll be able to make another run to the state title game next year.”
Notable: As Lincoln-Way East football coach Rob Zvonar dismissed some of his players to answer one-on-one questions with the media following East’s 23-14 defeat of Loyola Academy in the 8A state title game last weekend in DeKalb, he told them, “Stay humble and speak in complete sentences.” … LA senior wideout James Joyce had six receptions for 59 yards against East’s Griffins, giving him a team-high 56 grabs in 2017. He finished the season with 677 receiving yards, second to Rory Boos’ 827 among Ramblers. … LA tight end Charles Gilroy, a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder, caught four balls for 26 yards in his final prep game last weekend. … LA topped Lincoln-Way East 354-253 in total yardage, but East limited to LA to 39 yards rushing on 28 carries. … LA turned the ball over three times to East’s zero. … The Ramblers converted 7-of-15 third downs; the Griffin were successful only once in 10 third-down snaps.