Loyola is playing for the Class 8A state title again. No one should be surprised, but almost everyone is.
The Ramblers were 3-3 at one point this season and needed overtime to beat St. Ignatius. They didn’t look anything like a team that would return to the state finals.
But it clearly was foolish to count out Loyola and coach John Holecek. The Ramblers (10-3) have played in the last three Class 8A title games and four of the last five.
They will face undefeated Brother Rice at 7 p.m. Saturday in Champaign.
‘‘None of us thought that everything was going to go this smoothly and that we would make a long playoff run,’’ Holecek said. ‘‘At the same time, we knew we could beat anyone in the state if we played our game. The kids kept on believing and fighting.’’
Loyola got healthier on offense throughout the season, and the defense became a dominant unit. The Ramblers shut out undefeated Oswego in the second round and blanked perennial power Maine South in the quarterfinals.
Then Loyola shocked the state by knocking off undefeated and seemingly unbeatable Lincoln-Way East 24-16 in the semifinals.
Linebacker Armoni Dixon and linebacker/safety Jake Gonzalez, a Sun-Times All-Area selection, are the guys to watch.
Dixon and Gonzalez will have their hands full with Brother Rice quarterback John Bean. He has thrown for 18 touchdowns and rushed for 14 more and always seems to make the right decision.
The Crusaders also have a dominant defense, so expect a low-scoring game. Brother Rice is allowing only five points a game in the playoffs and has two shutouts.
Class 7A: Nazareth (12-1) vs. St. Charles North (10-3), 4 p.m. Saturday
Roadrunners quarterback JJ McCarthy is one of the star attractions in the state. Illinois rarely produces passers of his caliber. He is 161-for-219 for 3,088 yards with 35 touchdowns and four interceptions this season.
Diamond Evans (56 catches, 12 touchdowns) and Michael Love (54 catches, 18 touchdowns) are McCarthy’s two primary targets.
St. Charles North senior Tyler Nubin, a Minnesota recruit, willed his team to an overtime victory against Mount Carmel in the semifinals. He’s the North Stars’ best rusher, receiver and defensive player.
Class 6A: Cary-Grove (13-0) vs. Crete-Monee (10-3), 1 p.m. Saturday
Cary-Grove’s triple-option threat of quarterback Ben McDonald and running backs Danny Daigle and Blake Skol has been unstoppable this season.
Daigle isn’t a flashy college prospect, but he is one of the best high school football players in the state. He is a force on both sides of the ball.
McDonald’s smarts and arm helped lead Cary-Grove to Champaign. He was 85-for-119 with 18 touchdowns and only one interception this season.
Crete-Monee could play three quarterbacks: Trayvon Rudolph, Vontrell Banks and Ronald Carroll Jr.
‘‘Each of them does something very well,’’ Warriors coach John Konecki said. ‘‘I try to maximize their potential, and they do a fantastic job in the roles we ask them to.’’
Class 5A: Montini (12-1) vs. Joliet Catholic (9-4), 10 a.m. Saturday
A great rivalry game. Montini is the favorite after beating Loyola in Wilmette earlier this season. The Broncos have an excellent quarterback tandem in Robert Brazziel and Deontay Bell. Illinois recruit Nick Fedanzo is a solid running back and a huge threat on kick returns.
The Hilltoppers have one of the best rushing attacks in the area. Most of the players on the offensive line are three-year starters. Running back Keenan Hailey has 300 carries for 2,541 yards and 32 touchdowns.
Class 4A: IC Catholic (13-0) vs. McNamara (12-1), 7 p.m. Friday
IC Catholic won the last two Class 3A titles and has been dominant in almost every game this season. The only team to give the Knights a real challenge was McNamara, so this should be a fun one.
IC Catholic pulled out a 21-20 victory against McNamara in September. Knights running back Kyle Franklin has rushed for 2,151 yards and 35 touchdowns.Tags: Brother Rice, Cary Grove, Crete-Monee, Loyola, Montini