Blue hasn’t always been a popular color at Brother Rice.
Ever since their entry into the powerful Chicago Catholic League Blue, the Crusaders have usually played second — or third or fourth — fiddle to other members of the division. That’s understandable seeing as how three programs have at least one state football championship to their credit since the CCL Blue’s inception and the fourth has been a runner-up.
That latter team is Loyola Academy, which had beaten Rice every year since 2008. The Ramblers’ 2013 victory was, in fact, one of just two double-digit wins foes collected against the Crusaders last fall.
So when Loyola visited Joe Johnston Field Friday night for the latest renewal of the series the supposedly smart money was on the Ramblers continuing their mastery over Rice. That turned out to be a fool’s bet, however.
Fresh off a payback to neighboring Marist for a 2013 loss, the Crusaders continued down that same revenge-seeking path and Loyola became their latest victim.
After spotting the Ramblers the game’s first touchdown, Rice rattled off 16 unanswered points over the middle two periods, an output that was just enough to nail down a 16-13 triumph in both squads’ CCL Blue opener.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we got the job done,” Crusaders coach Brian Badke said. “We got a ‘W’ — that’s the bottom line. And it was even sweeter because it was in our first conference game.”
Badke wasn’t kidding about the lack of aesthetics in the contest. Each team was guilty of muddying the waters, Loyola doing so with four turnovers, three of which led to 13 Rice points.
Both of Matt Pikowski’s first-half field goals were set up by Ramblers miscues as was the Crusaders’ lone touchdown. Marcus Jones scored it on a 2-yard run in the third stanza after the visitors muffed a punt return and Robert Woods pounced on it for Rice.
“It was nice to have the ball bounce our way for a change,” said Badke, whose team rarely got fortuitous breaks a year ago. “It’s a new season and the kids responded.”
Pikowski, who connected on kicks of 29 and 35 yards before halftime, added another three-pointer in the third period to lift the Crusaders’ lead into double digits. Loyola, which had struck first on Dara Laja’s 4-yard touchdown run that was preceded by a 31-yard pass completion, narrowed its deficit on DJ Melsheimer’s 15-yard scoring pass to Spencer Cecola with less than four minutes remaining.
Then after the Ramblers forced Rice (2-1, 1-0) to punt at the end of its ensuing possession, the kick was driven into the back of a Crusaders player and Loyola had an unexpected chance to rally.
“You start thinking, ‘Is anything ever going to go our way?’” Badke said.
Kevin Furlong made sure it did by picking off a pass at the 1:40 mark to quash the comeback bid. Along with Furlong, Jim Opoka (six solo stops, two assists, one sack), Michael McGinley (four solos, one assist, two tackles for loss), Jordan Boyd (four solos, one assist), Woods (two fumble recoveries) and Derrick Frye (fumble recovery) were key figures on the Rice defense.
The Crusaders held the Ramblers below 200 total yards, although Loyola still outgained Rice by 15.
“We talk about focusing, finishing and playing four [good] quarters all the time and it was a good victory for us,” Badke said. “I really truly believe this started back in Michigan [with a close Week 1 loss to Brother Rice of Birmingham]. We obviously had some experience coming back, but that let us know we could play with the big boys and perform [well].
“We’re pretty good, too, and we’ve got to feed off this and get better. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and it’s last man standing. You do what you can do and control what you can.”
A Catholic League crossover against new member Wheaton-St. Francis is on the docket for Friday. While stepping outside the Blue for a week would seem to constitute a breather of sorts for the Crusaders, Badke doesn’t view it that way.
“I don’t care who we play,” he said. “Every week’s a playoff game — that’s how I see it and how we preach it. I want us to stay on an even keel, where we don’t get up for this game or down for that one.
“Our guys are loose and I think they feel prepared. This is their time to shine and we haven’t hit our best football yet.”
Loyola Academy 6 0 0 7 — 13
Brother Rice 0 6 10 0 — 16
First downs 11 8
Yds. rushing 25 77
Yds. passing 168 101
Total yds. 193 178
Att./comp. 30-12 18-7
Fumbles lost 3 0
Had intercepted 1 1
Penalties/yds. 4-45 2-25
Punts/avg. 7-33.6 8-32.1
LA — Dara Laja 4 run (conversion failed)
BR — Matt Pikowski 29 field goal
BR — Pikowski 35 field goal
BR — Marcus Jones 2 run (Pikowski kick)
BR — Pikowski 20 field goal
LA — Spencer Cecola 15 pass from DJ Melsheimer (Mike Kurzydlowski kick)
Brother Rice Rushing: Jones 20-38, Alarcon 17-29, Blain 1-6, Desmond 1-4. Passing: Alarcon 18-7-101. Receiving: Smalling 3-63, Hayes 2-21, Jones 1-13, Desmond 1-4.