Loyola concludes storybook season with IHSA Class 4A state championship


NORMAL, Ill. — When you think of Loyola, you think of their offensive prowess. Their three-point shooting. Their audacious passes. But Clare Weasler made the biggest play of the IHSA Class 4A state final by taking a charge with 26.1 seconds left to give the Ramblers a chance to seal the game.

Loyola (38-0) beat Nazareth -44-40 for the title, but not because of its lethal offense. The Ramblers won because they got gritty on defense.

“At the end of the fourth quarter, we were up five because we just locked in on our defense,” senior guard Paige Engels said, “and I always say this every time, but the pride of our team is our defense.”

The third quarter was the turning point for the Ramblers. They outscored the Roadrunners 15-2 in the quarter. Through their defense, they found their offense.

“We came as close as we can, and we’re just disappointed we didn’t finish it,” Nazareth coach Ed Stritzel said.

Engels and fellow senior Kelsey Langston each hit a three-pointer before dazzling junior guard Aubrey Galvan hit a tightly contested step-back jumper. All of the field goals came after holding the Roadrunners to a one-shot possession or creating a turnover.

Loyola looked out of sorts in the first quarter. The Ramblers weren’t playing their typical free-flowing style. They shot 38.9% from the field and 33.3% from the three-point line and struggled with Nazareth’s size. Loyola came out after halftime looking like the team that entered the championship unbeaten with a quick 8-0 run.

“When we were in the locker room at halftime, we all had so much confidence,” Engels said. “Every time we’re in these situations, we stay calm, we remain confident because we know we can do it.”

But for as beautiful as the Ramblers’ offense is, their defense is just as imposing. It’s what made them champions.

The Ramblers could execute their offensive strategy once they started forcing the Roadrunners (32-4) into mistakes. They got gritty, battling for loose balls, diving on the floor and limiting offensive rebounds. Despite not having a player over 6-feet, Loyola won the rebounding battle 18-17.

The question surrounding the Ramblers all season was whether they had enough size. They can now laugh at those notions as champions.

They were more relaxed and more at ease on the championship stage. They solved Nazareth’s zone and found their swag. Nothing showcased the Ramblers’ finding themselves more than Galvan burying a three-pointer from the midcourt logo.

But it’s the little plays that made Loyola champions. Langston, who personifies the Ramblers, played the post out of necessity and finished with seven points, four rebounds and one steal.

“She just does everything,” Ramblers coach Jeremy Schoenecker said. “She is the glue to our team, and she’s the reason why we won a state championship.”

The Ramblers came together when their season was teetering and emerged victorious.

“This team just deserved it so much,” Engels said. “We’ve put in so much work since the spring. We’ve been working for this moment, and every single girl on this team, no matter the scout team or a starter, put so much energy and effort into this team.’’

Kyle Williams is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.


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