Loyola football to play on ESPN

John Holecek has been on national television plenty, as a linebacker with the University of Illinois and in the NFL, mainly with the Buffalo Bills.

This Sunday will be his first time as head football coach at Loyola Academy, which hopes to be ready for its close up when the Ramblers host St. Xavier, out of Cincinnati, Ohio, in a game broadcast on ESPN from Hoerster Field.

The "Jesuit Showdown" between Loyola and the visiting Bombers starts in Wilmette at noon Aug. 28. It's the finale of seven football games beginning Aug. 25 that comprise the Geico ESPN High School Kickoff.

"We told the kids to be grateful for the opportunity, because millions of kids play football and never have this chance," Holecek said.

Holecek said the game against St. Xavier came about due to contacts from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald - whose son, Jack, is a Ramblers senior tight end and will join his father's team next season as a walk-on. Another of the Northwestern coach's sons, Ryan, a sophomore at Loyola, is the sophomore team's starting quarterback.

An emphasis for this ESPN game was to enlist an Ohio team.

"Ohio football, we know, is very good," said Holecek, whose Ramblers lost 27-10 to St. Ignatius of Cleveland to start the 2019 season, in which Loyola advanced to the Class 8A quarterfinals.

He's familiar with St. Xavier coach Steve Specht, a regular on the coaches clinic circuit for years, Holecek said. Blitz-happy on defense and a master of offensive deception through motion and multiple formations, Specht led St. Xavier to the Ohio Division I title in 2020, his fourth state title, according to the Cincinnati Inquirer.

Last season, the Bombers went 10-3 and reached the regional semifinals.

Loyola, which won the 1993 Class 6A title under the late John Hoerster and the 2015 and 2018 8A titles under Holecek, has reached at least the state quarterfinals in every full season but one since 2009.

Last year the Ramblers, behind returning quarterback Jake Stearney, a Colgate recruit, and teammates including Michigan commit Brooks Bahr at defensive end, went 6-0 in the COVID-shortened 2021 spring season, then last fall were 12-0 until eventual 8A champion Lockport won in the semifinals in Wilmette.

Unless injuries take a toll, St. Xavier will own a competitive advantage. Ohio teams are allowed to scrimmage opponents, and the Bombers will have two of those under their belt, plus a regular-season contest on Aug. 19.

"They'll be seasoned and experienced way before us," Holecek said. "It's Week 1. We'll get better. It'll be good for the program."

The programs also will play freshman and junior varsity games, the first starting at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 27 in Wilmette. The programs will gather for dinner, Mass and fellowship throughout the weekend.

"The Jesuit tradition we share unites us in a spirit of fellowship that will play out in good sportsmanship, friendship and fun," Loyola athletic director Genevieve Atwood said in a release.

Tickets went on sale Aug. 15 on the GoFan application. There also will be multiple watch parties for the varsity game, including two in Glenview: at Hackney's on Lake, 1514 E. Lake Ave.; and at Macushla Brewing Co., 1516 E. Lake St.

Holecek said while the opener against St. Xavier is merely "one game of a snapshot" he hopes lasts 14 weeks, he told his team to have "no regrets" playing before ESPN's national audience.

"Let's take this seriously," he said, "because you're going to be watching this with your grandkids."

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