Return of John Kecki gives Loyola’s defensive line a boost

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WILMETTE — It’s no coincidence that Loyola has played two of its best defensive games since John Kecki returned to the defensive line.

After recovering from hamstring and shoulder injuries that sidelined him throughout most of the offseason workouts and part of the regular season and postseason, Kecki has united with senior Charlie Pontarelli and junior Thomas Dreher to form a wrecking crew at the line of scrimmage. 

“We definitely are clicking on all cylinders right now,” Kecki said of the defensive line. “We feed off of each other. It’s a collective effort.”

Kecki missed three games with a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his shoulder before coming back for the second round of the Class 8A playoffs. In the last two postseason games, the Ramblers have recorded shutouts against teams — Notre Dame and Maine South — known for offense, totaling 12 sacks and forcing nine turnovers.

Kecki, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder, and company next travel to Stevenson for the Class 8A semifinals on Saturday. The winner earns a trip to Northern Illinois for the state championship.

Loyola neutralized Dons running back Chris James, who recently committed to Pitt, in a 24-0 win before beating the Hawks 35-0. It was the first time in Dave Inserra’s 13 seasons as head coach that Maine South didn’t score.

While the 6-3, 250-pound Pontarelli had five sacks and a fumble recovery in those two games, Beau Desherow, Loyola’s defensive line coach, said Kecki’s return at defensive end also has been key in the team’s recent success.

“He opens things up for others, especially Charlie,” said Desherow, a 1993 Loyola graduate who played linebacker for the Ramblers and then played on the defensive line in college for Tulsa. “He’s athletic and smart. He’s made a big difference.”

Dreher, like Kecki, has been a recent revelation for the Ramblers. The 6-2, 215-pounder stated his case to be a starter in Week 6 when Loyola beat Mount Carmel 24-17.

“He had an unbelievable game,” Desherow said of the varsity rookie. “We had to make sure the interior guy could tackle the runner on the option up the middle. I think he had seven solo tackles and five assists.

“We haven’t looked back since then. He secured his spot then.”

Pontarelli’s been a fixture from the start. Thanks to Dreher, Kecki, and Pontarelli — as well as 6-3, 230-pound senior Tommy Nickele — the Ramblers have been able to create problems for offenses.

“Oftentimes, a sack or a turnover involves many people getting pressure on the quarterback,” Kecki said. “One person might get credit for the sack or the interception, but it’s usually more than one player responsible for that.”

Kecki was called up to varsity as a sophomore and stood on the sideline throughout the playoffs. He was there in Champaign when Loyola lost to Bolingbrook in the Class 8A state final in 2011. 

“We don’t need any more motivation than we already have, but I remember how upset our seniors were that year,” Kecki said of the 21-17 loss to the Raiders. “We want to go out on top with a win.”

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