Features | Friday Night Drive

Lincoln-Way East, Loyola once again battle to end in Class 8A title game

A select few plays gave Loyola the separation it needed

Lincoln-Way East quarterback Braden Tischer shakes hands with Loyola Academy players following the Griffins’ 13-3 loss during the Class 8A football state title game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

CHAMPAIGN – The buildup to the Class 8A state championship between Loyola and Lincoln-Way East was littered with statements from both sides about how much each team respected the other.

That spilled over into Saturday’s title game, which turned into a war that was mounted on several fronts. In the end, Loyola secured a 13-3 win and the program’s fourth state championship.

Loyola demonstrated quickly how much it felt it needed to deviate from its established blueprint by dipping into its bag of tricks on its first play from scrimmage, going to a flea-flicker that went for an 80-yard touchdown pass from Jake Stearney to Declan Forde.

“Definitely throughout the year, we’ve been throwing a lot of heavy sets at teams, and once we throw our big guys down the line, teams expect it to be a heavy run play,” Stearney said. “And you only live once. It’s the state championship game. Why not?

“Declan and I went to grade school together and that was our first play every game back then and it was kind of cool to see it pay off in a state championship game.”

Loyola coach John Holecek thought the unorthodox first call might help in other ways even if it didn’t end up netting the score that it did.

“Worst case, it stops the safeties from coming down so fast,” Holecek said. “I thought it was a great call.”

Lincoln-Way East’s defense doesn’t typically get beat by those things. And after that misstep the Griffins quickly regained their footing, limiting the Ramblers to only 12 yards and two first downs the rest of the first half.

“That was a big play for them,” Lincoln-Way East linebacker Jake Scianna said of the flea flicker. “But we still felt very confident, we played them last year and only let up three points, and we felt our defense was much better and much faster, so we were definitely confident throughout the game.”

The Griffins also knew things weren’t going to come easy against Loyola. Although it tried to make some larger gains early in the game, eventually Lincoln-Way East went to its offensive strengths and put together a sustainable drive. Its end goal almost seemed to be lulling the Ramblers to sleep.

In a drive that encompassed 19 plays, East had no plays that went for more than 11 yards but kept moving the sticks on a sequence of small gains. The Griffins seemed poised to carry that philosophy all the way to the end zone, but a sack on third down [and the only negative play of the drive] forced East into a successful 30-yard field goal try from Carter Nair.

“I thought in the first half, we were winning the game everywhere but on the scoreboard, but that’s the only place that matters,” Zvonar said. “We thought our offense did a ton of good things, but when we got into the red zone they got tough and we couldn’t punch it in.”

Holding East to only three points on that drive was a pivotal effort for the Ramblers. It allowed them to carry a 7-3 lead into halftime.

“It was big. You feel good when you go into halftime with any type of lead,” Holecek said. “Felt great about it. We had a big sack, we were pressuring a little more than we used to because our coverage great, and I think that kind of caught them, and they took a big loss on a play.”

In the end, Loyola has now gotten the better of Lincoln-Way East in each of its past three meetings after the Griffins claimed the 2017 Class 8A championship – the first time the sides squared off. Everyone involved has learned to expect a dogfight when the two teams meet.

“They have tremendous players and tremendous coaches, and they’ve assembled an all-star group of players and an all-star group of coaches, and that’s what you get,” Zvonar said. “They’ve scored 16 points and the last eight quarters we’ve played them, and we’ve only scored three, that equals an 0-2 record against them in two tough ball games against them the last two years.”