CHAMPAIGN — Jake Stearney and Declan Forde went back to their childhoods to start the biggest game of their lives.
The Loyola quarterback and wide receiver always ran a flea-flicker before the start of their grade school games growing up, so when Ramblers offensive coordinator Tyler Vradenburg asked them if they wanted to start Saturday’s Class 8A state-title game with the play, the answer seemed clear.
“You only live once,” Stearney said. “State-championship game. Why not?”
Loyola used the play on its first offensive possession and when the ball came back to Stearney, he found a wide open Forde for an 80-yard pass to set the tone for the Ramblers’ 13-3 championship win.
“It was one of the scariest moments in my life,” Forde said. “Seeing that ball in the air, it felt like forever before it landed in my hands. It’s a fantastic feeling.”
Loyola (13-1) won its fourth state title in program history, the third since 2015. Saturday was the fourth meeting between the Ramblers and the Griffins in the last five playoffs and the second in the 8A championship.
The Ramblers didn’t get much going offensively in the first half, but just like their first offensive possession of the game, Loyola’s start to the second half seemed to put the game away for good.
Loyola increased its lead to 13-3 midway through the third quarter when the Ramblers went on a 11-play, 80-yard drive to start the second half. Stearney connected with Forde for a 17-yard touchdown pass with 5:46 left in the quarter.
Stearney completed 14-of-19 pass attempts for 174 yards while Forde brought in three catches for 110 yards. Loyola had 44 rushing yards.
Ramblers coach John Holecek had been telling his players all season that they’re as close to a perfect team as they can get. Loyola’s lone loss was a close one to Class 7A state champion Mount Carmel.
“I was inspired by these guys and confident because of these guys,” “Holecek said. “It was great to have them on our side.”
Lincoln-Way East (13-1) controlled the time of possession for much of the first half, but only managed three points on a 30-yard field goal from Carter Nair with 4:20 left in the second quarter when it made it to the Loyola 14.
The Griffins had one final chance to try to make the score closer midway through the fourth quarter when they had the ball at the Loyola 44 but Jack Parker and Matty McGovern combined to tackle Lincoln-Way East quarterback Braden Tischer on a scramble on fourth down.
Tischer completed 11-of-20 passes for 81 yards and added 59 on the ground while James Kwiecinski rushed for 56 yards.
“We are honored and blessed to be here tonight,” Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar said. “Obviously not the result we wanted, but we’ll continue to work hard. I’m proud of these young men.”
Stearney and his teammates grew up watching Loyola football, wanting to be out on the field winning a state title. After losing to Lockport in the 8A semifinals last season, Stearney and the seniors made sure to fix what stopped them from realizing their dreams so it didn’t happen again.
All it took was going back to their childhood to make sure those would come true.
“It’s great to see it pay off in the state championship game,” Stearney said.