With a grueling 4-game road stretch to start the season, the Wildcats needed to start the season with a strong performance.
That's exactly what they did.
The Saint Ignatius varsity football team earned a hard-fought victory over the Loyola Academy Ramblers on Saturday at Ames Field in Michigan City, Indiana, 27-10. After a slow start, the Wildcats turned up the heat in the second half, jetting to a strong win with great efforts on both sides of the ball.
The Wildcats departed West 30th and Lorain on Friday morning after the Mass for the Holy Spirit for South Bend, Indiana. About four hours later, the team arrived on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, where the Wildcats stayed the night before the game. The team prayed in the Grotto of Our Lady of the Lourdes, toured the campus and Notre Dame Stadium, and enjoyed a meal in the dining hall. It was an unforgettable experience for the team.
On Saturday morning, the Football Cats boarded buses for an hour-long drive to Ames Field in Michigan City. In all, the Wildcats endured a lot of time on the bus.
Early on in the first half, the travel seemed to impact the visitors. The Wildcats were amped to play, but the execution lacked in the early goings. The Saint Ignatius offense experienced difficulty in building momentum. The defense looked solid, especially on turning away the Ramblers on a key fourth down. But early penalties granted the Ramblers free yards and another chance.
Loyola took advantage, driving down the field thanks in part to a pair of long penalties. The hosts' drive did stall, however, as the Wildcats held on a 3rd and 5 to force a field goal, in part due to two nice plays by Nick Velotta. Loyola hit a 30-yard field goal with 3:51 left in the first quarter.
The score remained 3-0 Loyola after the first horn blew.
"In the first quarter, it looked like we traveled a long way to play. We were not sharp," said Head Coach Chuck Kyle '69. "I looked at the scoreboard and said, 'Thank God we're only 3 points down the way we're playing.' We were not executing."
Over the course of the second quarter, the Wildcats started to gain momentum. Quarterback Griffin Hanna started to find a groove, establishing the short game with passes to Henry Cook, Connor Cmiel, Mike Simcak, and Domenic Fabe. Hanna opened room with his feet, scrambling for yards. Jack Welcsh also found space in the running game, breaking a long run on a first down play.
Loyola started to find room to work on offense, too, as quarterback Perrion McClinton found Matt Mangan on a couple of great catches, audibling when he saw single coverage. But the Saint Ignatius defense took advantage of a miscommunication between McClinton and his wideout for an interception. Loyola's wideout stopped running a route, while McClinton expected a fade into the end zone. Erik Daugenti picked off the ball and ended a potentially dangerous Ramblers drive.
The Wildcats could not take advantage of the turnover, but the Saint Ignatius defense kept making plays. A sack by Aidan Hubbard granted the Cats the ball with 2:46 left in the half.
The Wildcats' offense then committed its first and only major mistake of the day, an interception across the middle. Loyola looked to be in good position to score, but the Ramblers made a mistake to gift the ball back to Saint Ignatius. Velotta hit the quarterback, causing him to fumble. Hubbard pounced on the loose ball, giving the Wildcats the ball at the 50.
With 34 seconds left, the Wildcats scored the first points of the season. Cook split the two safeties with a shallow post, creating an opening for Hanna to find him for six. Rory McConville hit the PAT to send the Wildcats into the dressing room with a 7-3 lead.
"Loyola had a drive and I thought they were going to go up 10, but the defense rose to the occasion. We started getting it in the middle of the second quarter," Coach Kyle said. "We had that nice drive to take the lead 7-3. We went to the two-minute drill because of the clock, and the boys handled that beautifully. It seemed like they were disheveled when we went to that, guys were out of position, and then we hit the touchdown. That made the kids feel good coming out in the second half."
After a Jack Welcsh interception ended the first half, Loyola started with the ball in the second half. It didn't take long for the Wildcats' special teams to make a critical, game-changing play.
Emmett Hanna fired around the right side of the line on a punt, extending his arms enough to block the Loyola punt. Francz found the ball and spun past a defender to pick up extra yardage to the Loyola 19-yard line. A few plays later, Hanna gritted out a 3-yard touchdown on a run to the left for the 14-3 lead.
"I got hit a couple of times [on the drive], including one that put me out. But I got back in, and it was a quarterback power to the left, and I just needed to get into the end zone," Hanna said. "Mike Simcak had a great block on the end, same with [Nick] Schwitz[gebel] and Gus [Salopek]. The left side got me in."
The defense, guided by Ryan Franzinger '02, continued to dominate. Loyola's offense found little room to work, with the front six forcing pressure and clogging running lanes, along with the secondary locking down Loyola's dangerous wideouts.
After another defensive stop, the Wildcats found paydirt again with 3:17 left in the third. Great blocks by Tony Georges, Owen Keane, and Sam Daugstrup opened enough room for Mike Simcak to dive into the end zone for the first score of his varsity career.
Entering the fourth quarter, the Wildcats enjoyed a significant 21-3 lead.
Loyola ate into the advantage early in the fourth quarter. Head Coach John Holecek opted for a grinding, run-first approach to eat yardage. The idea worked, as the Ramblers started to wear out the Saint Ignatius defense. Loyola pounded in a 10-yard touchdown run with strong blocking and stout running, narrowing the gap to 21-10.
It didn't take the Wildcats long to respond.
On just the second play of the ensuing drive, Hanna found Cmiel on a screen pass. The play was designed to isolate Cmiel on the nearside, with left tackle Nick Schwitzgebel coming out to take out the cornerback. Without a deep safety to stop him, Cmiel was off to the races on an 80-yard touchdown.
"Connor Cmiel broke one, and you knew he would one of these plays," said Coach Kyle. "They were double covering him and bracketing him, but we forced them into a situation where they had to honor the other side of the field a little bit more. He just did the job."
With a 17-point lead to work with, the Saint Ignatius defense played with a reinvigorated energy, stopping the Ramblers from doing much of anything. Velotta, Hubbard, Anthony Gerace, and the front six kept McClinton from running. Forced to throw, McClinton found few openings with the secondary staying fresh by rotating in players and shutting down the Ramblers' wideouts, no matter the personnel.
With Loyola going 3-and-out on its opportunities, the Saint Ignatius offense killed the remainder of the clock. The Wildcats walked out of Ames Field with a nice win to start the season.
"We played a great, team game," Hanna said. "The defense helped out the offense, which helped to get us going. They kept giving us the ball back, and we just needed to get in a rhythm. With the first few drives, we weren't in a rhythm, then we settled down."
Unlike last season, the Wildcats will enter Week 2 with a 1-0 record.
"It's a great feeling because we started off a little slow last year," Hanna said. "It's great momentum coming back to Ohio. We have a big game next week. It's a great way to start the season, especially the way we started the season last year."
Another thing that makes the win special – Loyola Academy is not an average program. The Ramblers won the Class 8A Illinois state championship in 2018, the third in the school's history and the second under Holecek.
Loyola did have plenty of new starters on defense and a new starter at quarterback on Saturday, but the Ramblers are a quality team that will compete for another Illinois state title in November.
"They're a quality football team. They're returning state champions and in the Chicago Catholic League," Coach Kyle said. "They're a good program and a good football team. They kick the ball, they throw well, they play tough defense. To come out and play a caliber football team, to learn how to fight through it and win is good."
Having returned home, the Wildcats don't have the luxury of dwelling on the win for too long, however.
The Mentor Cardinals await the Wildcats on Friday. The Cardinals emerged with a 29-28 win in a dogfight of a win over St. Edward on Thursday evening. The Wildcats have plenty of work ahead to prepare for Mentor's vaunted offense and solid defense.
"We can enjoy it for about 24 hours, but we're playing Mentor on Friday, and they played on Thursday, so they have a long week and we have a short week," Kyle said. "We're going to have to be economical in how we prepare and focus in. Every rep will be important this week when you're trying to prepare for Mentor, especially an away game."