The day before Loyola beat Maine South in the Class 8A quarterfinals, Jack Penn returned to his football roots.
The Loyola senior quarterback, along with several of his teammates, was invited to speak at an Our Lady of Perpetual Help football practice. Penn — who was joined by senior Charlie Pontarelli, senior John Kecki, senior Tim Sullivan and junior Brian O’Brien — talked to the grammar-school players about what it meant to him to suit up for the Warriors.
“Football was such a big part of growing up, and we want to give back any way we can,” Penn said. “Football was all we cared about back then.”
Penn is one of six starters on the Ramblers who played football at the Glenview private school, which offers classes from preschool through eighth grade. Loyola junior Cal Falkenhayn also played for the Warriors. Penn and Pontarelli both were all-Catholic Blue selections this season.
“It’s been a tradition to bring back former players, most who end up playing for Loyola,” said OLPH coach Tony Belmont, who runs the football program with Jim O’Gara. “They share their experiences, what they learned while they were here.”
Although OLPH owned one of the best football programs among the area Catholic grammar schools, Penn never won a championship with the Warriors. He will get a chance to win one Saturday with Loyola, which last captured a state championship in 1993. The Ramblers (12-1) play Naperville Central (10-3) at 7 p.m. at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
“They taught us how to play the game the right way,” said Penn, who helped the Ramblers earn a 15-14 win over Stevenson on Saturday with a touchdown pass and two-point conversion in the final two minutes of the game. “They taught us the fundamentals and techniques of the game. They pride themselves on not just being good at backyard football, but being good at actually playing the game. They also taught me how to have the proper attitude on the football field.
“It was great preparation for high school.”
Belmont and O’Gara have been at OLPH for 14 years. Both are 1984 Loyola graduates who played for the Ramblers and later played football in college. Belmont and O’Gara then served as assistants at Loyola when John Hoerster was the head coach. Belmont said almost all of OLPH’s coaches went to Loyola.
“You want grade-school coaches like that, guys with that kind of knowledge,” said Loyola coach John Holecek, the head coach since 2006. “Tony and Jim know football, and they know how to coach.”
Belmont, who played at NIU and plans to attend Saturday’s title game, said he and O’Gara do their best to treat OLPH’s football program like a high school one.
“We believe in taking care of the little things, teaching individuals and positions,” Belmont said. “If you do those correctly, the bigger things will take care of themselves.”
Penn credited Pete Dezell, an OLPH assistant, with his early development as a quarterback.
“He basically was my mentor,” said Penn, who’s completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,982 yards and 22 touchdowns this year. “The offense was only so complex, but he taught me how to be smart, efficient and a good leader.”
Penn and Pontarelli both said they were ready for the next level after their time at OLPH. The strange part about arriving at Loyola, Pontarelli said, was teaming up with former adversaries from teams such as St. Norbert/Sacred Heart. Senior Joe Joyce, junior Ryan Zinkula and junior Mark Dowdle — all starters for the Ramblers — played for the Northbrook/Winnetka football team.
“It took a while for us to get used to it,” said Pontarelli, who stars on the defensive line. “But it’s pretty cool now.”