Late in the regular season when discussing playoff possibilities, Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar asked this reporter, “What side do you think they will be on?”
I didn’t have to ask who “they” were.
Zvonar was referring to Loyola, as the Ramblers and the Griffins have been two of the most notable programs in the largest class in IHSA football. They’ve both been omnipresent in such a way that the two will cap the 2022 high school football season at 7 pm Saturday night for the Class 8A State championship at the University of Illinois.
Loyola and Lincoln-Way East have met only once previously for the state title, in 2017, where Lincoln-Way East emerged with a 23-14 win.
They met again a year later in the semifinals, with Loyola exacting some measure of revenge with what proved to be an epic 24-16 win. Loyola would win the state title the next weekend over Brother Rice.
They somehow didn’t collide in 2019, but Lincoln-Way East was happy for the break and claimed a state title without having to deal with the Ramblers.
But the series was back on 2020, with Loyola squeaking out a 3-0 win in the quarterfinals. And now a little over a year later, the series is back on with the highest of stakes.
“We went 20 years without playing them,” Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar said. “And now we’ve played them four times in the last five years.
“We just have tremendous respect for that program. We’ve kind of come to calling them Loyola University.”
Holecek didn’t hear directly of Zvonar’s praise, but recognized that he fully expected that if his team was going to claim its third state title for the program since 2015, it was likely to require a head-to-head meeting at some point with. Lincoln-Way East in order to do it.
“I said it back in September, we’re going to see Lincoln-Way East,” Loyola coach John Holecek said. “We’ve always thought it has kind of been destiny.”
And Loyola will be facing a Lincoln-Way East team that has proven time and time again that the sum of its parts plays even stronger than relying on any one individual.
“This team has proven to be little bit more top-to-bottom consistent,” Zvonar said. “There’s no AJ Hennings. [former Lincoln-Way East standout now at Michigan] in this group.
“It’s more like a whole group of regular kids getting the best out of their abilities.”
And those same kids are far more interested in the end result playing out in their favor than who did the lion’s share of the damage.
“I just feel so comfortable with all of the guys that are out there,” Lincoln-Way East quarterback Braden Tischer said. “Anywhere we go, guys are just making plays, and I just love being a part of it. It makes my job easier. People can’t key on just one person. They have to play against our offense as a whole”
Like most Lincoln-Way East players, Tischer downplays his role in the success of the Griffins offense, but the 5-foot-10, 165-pound junior is pivotal to keeping things on course.
“He plays like he’s 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” Zvonar said of his signal caller. “He’s got such a competitive nature.”
That competitive nature allowed him to defy the odds in Saturday’s semifinal win over Glenbard West. Pinned back against its own goal line, Lincoln-Way East ran a quarterback sneak in an attempt to simply gets it offense some breathing room. It looked like the play was stacked up at the line, but somehow Tischer wouldn’t allow himself to be tackled, squirting out of the pile to find himself separated from the defense. Ninety-nine yards later, he was in for an unlikely score.
“That was crazy. Even thinking about that now, it doesn’t even feel real,” Tischer said. “For the last 20, 30 yards, I was like, ‘How long is this run going to be?’ ”
But its exactly the kind of play that Lincoln-Way East tends to find a way to make. It also makes them a nightmare to try to defend against.
“There’s no weak link on that football team,” Holecek said.
It would be perfectly understandable if both sides were leery of such an ominous foe on the other side of the field, but Zvonar and his team don’t see it that way, especially since Loyola holds the upper hand in the series.
“Anytime you are a true competitor you want that chance,” Zvonar said.
And the Griffins are going to get just that.