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O’Brien: Dara Laja keys Loyola’s comeback win over H-F

Loyola senior Dara Laja, the all-time leading rusher in school history, is quick to smile and admirably humble. He’s clearly an incredibly well-liked figure among the student body and also the focal point of the Ramblers’ offense.

So things looked bleak as the Loyola student section chanted Laja’s name with 11:06 to play in the fourth quarter Saturday in Wilmette. The running back was lying down on the field, suffering from cramps in his legs. He eventually limped to the sideline, leaving the Ramblers without their key offensive weapon for the most important drive of the season.

Senior quarterback Emmett Clifford didn’t miss a beat. Clifford led the Ramblers down the field, finally connecting with Jack Loper on a 10-yard touchdown pass with 4:52 to play that gave Loyola the lead for the first time since early in the first quarter.

Laja returned for the next drive, which he capped off with a seven-yard touchdown run as Loyola beat Homewood-Flossmoor 34-28 in the Class 8A state quarterfinals.

“Every two seconds I was on the sidelines I was asking someone what down it was and what was happening,” Laja said. “But to see (Loper) go in there was great. He had a few first downs in there and to go 96 yards and score that was definitely the turning point in the game.”

Loper injured his shoulder Sept. 4 against Maine South. This was his first game back.

“What a heart on that kid,” Loyola coach John Holecek said. “To have surgery and ten weeks later he’s out here battling. He worked so tirelessly to come back. Seeing him have a game was so rewarding.”

Laja finished with 30 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown. Loyola’s game-plan was to limit the Vikings’ offensive possessions. Keeping H-F’s high-powered offense off the field was the key to victory, so that meant long drives kept alive by Laja’s quick, cunning runnings.

“It was definitely a long, hard game that was fought in the trenches,” Laja said. “Like every game, I have to give the offensive line credit. They are tough and hard-nosed, great guys and I’m lucky to have them protecting me.”

Clifford was 16-for-24 for 156 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed eight times for 47 yards, including an eight yard touchdown.

“We knew they were a big play offense and we knew we had to keep them off the field if we were going to win,” Clifford said.

Clifford’s poise was evident throughout the game. He didn’t let the interceptions effect him and seemed to make smart decisions on nearly every play.

Homewood-Flossmoor’s offense more than lived up to its reputation. Running back Deante Harley-Hampton and wide receiver Kendric Pryor, a Wisconsin recruit, were spectacular.

Harley-Hampton had 14 carries for 140 yards and three touchdowns. But the truly eye-popping play was his 34-yard touchdown reception late in the game. The pass went about three yards in the air. The rest was all speed, style and elusiveness. He changed directions midway through, running the entire width of the field to eventually find the corner of the end zone.

Pryor caught eight passes for 154 yards. H-F quarterback Bryce Gray was 15-for-28 for 265 yards and one touchdown.

“They held the ball,” Homewood-Flossmoor coach Craig Buzea said. “We certainly didn’t get many chances, that was the key. We knew they were capable of doing that. A lot of people tried that, but they have the folks to do it. They have us outmanned by maybe 80 pounds on the line.”