By Mark Maxwell
The expression "next man up" is a familiar one to many sports fans living in Chicago. For the Loyola Ramblers, it is a stark reality.
As most successful high school football programs would testify, winning teams are often full of seniors. Such was the case last season, as the Ramblers waved goodbye to their starting quarterback, three of their top four rushers, three of their top four receivers, several offensive linemen and nine of their top 11 tacklers on defense.
Jack Gleason, a senior and defensive back for the Ramblers, paid attention to the critics and takes pride in proving them wrong.
“People kept saying that we lost a bunch of seniors from last year and that we weren't going to be as good," he said. "It felt great to prove to them that we can still play. We play as a team, and we were able to become No. 1. It feels pretty good.”
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Embracing a "no excuses" mentality, the Ramblers are marching into the closing week of the regular season as the No. 1 team in the state and hold a spotless 8-0 record. Wins are no easy get when you play in the Chicago Catholic League Blue. The most impressive victory of the Ramblers’ season came in Week 6 when they toppled the defending Class 8A state champions, the then-undefeated and top-ranked Mt. Carmel Caravan by the score of 24-17.
Senior linebacker, Andrew Cerney recorded two tackles-for-loss and reeled in an interception in the victory over Mt. Carmel. Cerney credited his coaches for the successes of the season.
“We have overcome some adversity in almost every game, thanks to our coaches. They set us up with the right game plan, and we just work hard and trust it,” Cerney said. “We've had excellent defenses — like a top-five defense in the state — pretty much every year since coach (John) Holecek has been here. We like to be the most physical team every time we step on the field.”
Holecek played eight seasons in the NFL, playing inside linebacker for the six seasons for the Bills, and one season for both the Chargers and Falcons. He also wore blue and orange for the Fighting Illini from 1991-94. His NFL résumé commands immediate respect from the players, and it shows on the field. The Ramblers’ defensive squad is allowing fewer than nine points per game so far this season.
“They buy into the program. They study. They're professionals, if I can use that word in the high school setting,” Holecek said. “They come with a great approach, they study their opponent and they adjust to things on the field.”
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One of the more impressive details about this team is that not one player on their roster has been offered a scholarship to a Division I school. Truly adopting a team-first mentality, they have come together to be greater than a sum of their parts.
It is only fitting that in the final week of the regular season, the Ramblers would face off against the St. Rita Mustangs, Comcast SportsNet’s Muscle Milk Team of the Week from Week 1. St. Rita’s resurgent season has been led by the dual-threat attack of quarterback Tommy Mister alongside dynamic running back Lamar Dawson.