High school football: No. 3 Loyola opens season with playoff week intensity

Loyola is never far out of the spotlight. The Ramblers have been the area’s best football program over the past decade.

But things are heating up, even by their lofty standards, this week. No. 3 Loyola opens the season Sunday on ESPN against visiting Cincinnati St. Xavier.

“This feels like a playoff week,” Ramblers coach John Holecek said. “And then we will go back to normal and can build back up and correct our mistakes and keep getting better. The pressure here is you don’t want to be embarrassed on national television.”

St. Xavier may have a bit of an upper hand. The Bombers opened the season this past weekend, losing to Lakota West, Ohio.

“They will have a game under their belts but maybe we will have a bit of an element of surprise,” Holecek said. “They will have to guess a little bit on our personnel. But they might figure that out in the first quarter.”

The No. 3 Ramblers return a solid foundation on offense with quarterback Jake Stearney (Colgate), and tight ends Jack Fitzgerald (Northwestern) and Jack Parker (Western Michigan).

Seniors Braden Carlin (6-0, 255 pounds), Amario Hill (6-3, 300) and Will Emerson (6-2, 280 pounds) are back to anchor the offensive line. Holecek believes Panayiotis Mihalopoulos (6-3, 295 pounds) will fit right in after missing last season.

Junior Will Nimesheim and sophomore Drew MacPherson are the top running backs but Holecek plans for seniors Peter Hogan and Kyan Gibbs to get some carries.

Senior wide receiver Spencer Leadbetter, who has a knack for making big catches, should be one of Stearney’s favorite targets. Senior receiver Declan Forde (6-1, 180), who missed last season, should be a major contributor.

“[Leadbetter] turns things up a bit when he’s on the field and somehow just runs by people,” Holecek said.

Loyola’s Spencer Leadbetter catches the ball during practice.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

This is Stearney’s second full year as the Ramblers’ starting quarterback and he played a bit as a sophomore. Last season he passed for 2,165 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 869 yards and nine touchdowns.

“I’m going to try and make the most of every practice and play and game this season,” Stearney said. “The offense has more experience back but I’m not too worried about the defense. They always get it done.”

Stearney is correct. Holecek’s defenses are always a force by playoff time.

The Ramblers don’t have a lot of returners on defense but there is a very solid core with 6-6, 275-pound senior defensive end Brooks Bahr (Michigan), cornerback Gabe Gyorgy and safety John McGuire. Bahr is one of the most physically intimidating players in the area.

Juniors Colin Scheid (5-11, 205 pounds) and Ethan Hogg (6-3, 210) will be stepping up as starting linebackers.

“They are learning the defense and getting good,” McGuire said. “They might not have the experience the guys did last year but they are great athletes.”

Loyola schedule

Aug. 28 vs. Cincinnati St. XavierSept. 3 vs. UnitedSept. 9 at St. RitaSept. 17 vs. Brother RiceSept. 24 vs. FenwickSept. 30 at MaristOct. 7 at ProvidenceOct. 15 vs. St. PatrickOct. 22 vs. Mount Carmel

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