DeKALB — A decision to play it safe turned out to be a dangerous one, and the Loyola football team lost out on a chance at a Class 8A state championship for the second time in three seasons Saturday.
Naperville Central senior Dillon Grooss blocked a 22-yard field goal attempt and returned it 83 yards for his team’s only touchdown early in the fourth quarter in the Redhawks’ 13-10 victory at Northern Illinois.
Trailing 6-2, Loyola coach John Holecek sent out junior kicker Mike Kurzydlowski on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line. Grooss got free around the edge, blocked the kick, scooped up the ball and outran the Ramblers for the score with 8 minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
“It was about 5, 6 yards. It wasn’t a gimme,” Holecek said about the possibility of the offense reaching the end zone. “Obviously, I regret it now. Our defense was playing very well at the time, and the momentum seemed to shift [our way]. If we kick it, it’s a one-point game. We get a big stop, and we get good field position.
“That was the safer choice at the time. In hindsight, we should have pulled it back.”
The Ramblers (12-2) responded with a touchdown drive on their next series.
Senior Jack Penn went 8-for-9, connecting with senior Fran O’Malley for an 8-yard touchdown scoring strike. Penn then ran in the two-point conversion to leave the score 13-10 in favor of the Redhawks with 5:39 left.
But Naperville Central (11-3) was able to run out the remaining time to win the program’s second state title.
Redhawks coach Mike Stine said he agreed with Holecek’s thinking at the time of the field goal.
“If I was in John’s shoes, I would have done the same thing,” Stine said.
But the game wasn’t lost on that decision alone. Loyola turned over the ball twice in the red zone in the first half. Each one led to a field goal by the Redhawks and a 6-0 advantage at intermission.
“Those two turnovers at the beginning of game if we get any points there, it’s a completely different game,” Holecek said. “That put us behind, and our confidence wasn’t high after that. Our kids showed tremendous character, but you can’t dig yourself holes like that.”
Both defenses shined at Huskie Stadium. Loyola and Naperville Central combined for 173 rushing yards and went an aggregate 7-for-28 on third downs.
Stine said he could have believed capturing a state championship without scoring an offensive touchdown.
“Yeah,” Stine said. “There are three phases, offense, defense and special teams. To be a great team, you have to be good in all three. [Saturday], our defense and special teams came through.”