Rich Wehman probably caught more passes last fall for Loyola's football team than he has made hoops for the basketball team. But scoring isn't his role. For Wehman and fellow seniors Austin Morton and Jack Byrne, who hardly play at all, leadership is the name of the game.
"My role in basketball is to be a leader and play good defense, not to score," Wehman said. "We didn't have any leadership last year, only one senior. But we have more maturity this year. Everybody understands their roles. Everybody is coming together.
"I've played on the varsity for three years and I have a great understanding of how things are supposed to be done. I feel the team responds to my voice and my intensity. When I bring it every day, the team will feed off that."
That is the difference between this year's 19-5 team, which will carry a 12-game winning streak into Friday's game against St. Joseph in Westchester, and last year's 9-18 finisher -- senior leadership.
"Last year was a learning experience. We started one senior, two juniors and two sophomores," coach Tom Livatino said. "We lacked for leadership and an understanding of what it takes to be a championship-caliber program, the work and commitment it takes to be successful."
But the Ramblers changed their approach to the game after last season. Much of the credit goes to Morton, a 6-foot-7 senior who usually observes from the bench as juniors Jack Morrissey and James Clarke score most of the points and create most of the headlines.
In Tuesday night's 77-44 rout of Lane Tech, Morrissey scored 20 points and Clarke added 18.
"The senior leadership this year has been tremendous," Livatino said. "Morton demanded that kids lift and lift hard. He mandated that everyone should get on his level. It was the beginning of us understanding what kind of commitment is necessary. It is a lot easier when players are leading your team and demanding stuff as opposed to myself."
Morton challenges his teammates in the weight room and works with the scout team to prepare the starters for each upcoming game. Wehman, who is committed to play football at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, a Division III school, and Byrne make sure the players are accountable to each other on and off the court.
"Loyola is a football school. In basketball, it's a matter of finding our identity as a team. We found it this year," Wehman said. "It took a lot of commitment in the off-season. Austin has constantly pushed everyone into the weight room so everybody would get stronger. That was a big weakness last year. We got pushed around and gave up a lot of second-chance opportunities.
"I am the intangibles guy. I get only two or three shots a game but I take charges and make deflections and play defense. I try to prevent lulls that teams will have. We're still pretty young. Every good team needs someone to lay down the law or pat them on the back. I strike a good balance between those two."
Livatino reminds that Wehman is still playing on an injured ankle sustained in football.
"He still isn't 100 percent but he's a gutty player. He brings toughness to our team. He challenges the other guys. He demands that we get better every week. When he started to get healthy, we started to play better," the coach said.
This could be a landmark basketball team at a school that is known for its football program. The Ramblers are seeking to reach a standard of success achieved by only two other teams. Bill Gleason's 22-9 squad was the benchmark, qualifying for the Elite Eight in 1976. Bryan Tucker's 27-4 team lost to Marshall in the supersectional in 2006.
It won't be an easy path. Loyola is seeded No. 5 in its sectional complex behind Maine South, Notre Dame, New Trier and Niles North. The Ramblers have beaten Notre Dame but lost to New Trier and Niles North. But they are oozing with confidence as their winning streak continues.
"We haven't played our best basketball yet," Wehman said. "We feel we can win the sectional. We have confidence in our strong defense and our good guard play. What strikes me the most about this year's team is our team chemistry, how we stick together no matter what happens. I felt this team would be special."
So did Livatino, who played football for former Loyola coach Tom Powers at Evanston. A 1987 Evanston graduate, he assisted at Loyola from 1998 to 2001. In his fourth year, he is turning around a program that was 13-18, 14-13 and 9-18 in his first three seasons.
"There is no doubt if you want to characterize in terms of sports, Loyola is a football school," he said. "But we think Loyola has a strong basketball background and I think things are in place to extend the tradition and take it to the next level."
Last season, Livatino started one senior, two juniors and two sophomores. Eighty-five percent of the scoring returned. Over the spring, summer and fall, they addressed their shortcomings and improved their skills, spending time in the weight room and competing in seven shootouts and three tournaments, hosting a summer league and participating in AAU events.
"They stayed together and learned how to play together," Livatino said. "We are very good defensively. We hold opponents down. If we hold them in the 40s, we win. And we shoot well. That's our biggest strength on offense. This team shoots as well as any team I've coached."
Jack Morrissey is a 6-foot-2 junior who averages 20 points per game. Described as "the best three-point shooter I have coached, better than Colin Falls" by Livatino, he has converted 47 percent of his shots beyond the arc. He is attracting interest from Division I schools, including Wisconsin and Northern Illinois.
Morrissey attended a public grammar school in Evanston. So how did he end up at Loyola? "My mother was his third grade teacher," Livatino said.
"He is a great shooter. He will set a school record for three-point shooting this year. But he dedicated himself to becoming a good defender. There is a difference between night and day from where he was last year as a defender."
After seeing Morrissey score 18 points in a recent 49-40 victory over his team, Gordon Tech coach Tom Kleinschmidt said: "He is a confident kid. He doesn't care who is guarding him. He takes big shots. He is a shooter. The kid is a great player. And they are the hottest team in the state."
James Clarke, a 5-foot-11 junior averages 15 points per game. He was the point guard last season but Livatino said he needed to get him off the point this season to get him in a scoring position. In the last 10 games, he has made 40 percent of his three-point attempts.
So the point guard in Loyola's four-guard Michigan-like motion offense is 6-foot junior Kevin Kucera (7 ppg, 5 apg). The other starters are Wehman (6 ppg), a 6-foot-2 senior, and 6-foot-6 senior Matt Sullivan (8 ppg, 8 rpg).
Role players who come off the bench are Morton, 5-foot-10 senior Jack Byrne, 6-foot-4 sophomore Griffin Boehm, 6-foot-2 junior Chris Sullivan and 6-foot-5 senior Matt Bauer.
"Our key to success is to keep defending like we do, understand the personnel and what the other team does, get out on transition on offense, attack the basket and make open three-point shots," Livatino said.
"Last year was a bummer. We knew we'd take our bumps because we were so young. It was pretty disappointing. I thought we could have done better," Wehman said. "But I'm not surprised how this team has gone at all. The coach keeps pushing. He challenges us. We want to be pushed and respond to his challenges.
"This is my last run in organized basketball. I hope to end it with a great memory. This season has been fantastic so far, to potentially have our name on a banner as conference champion when I come back to Loyola. We've had only eight conference champions in school history. This is a great way to go out."