The Ramblers have not won the State Championship since 1996 and are 0-7 since that title
By Ross Forman
Will this finally be Loyola Gold’s season?
Will the Ramblers finally break out of their decades-old slump?
Finally, finally, finally.
Yep, it’s a 20-year slump for the ‘Golden’ Ramblers.
It sure has been a rough skate for the top-tiered club from Loyola Academy in north suburban Wilmette, which has an overall school record of 2-10 in the state championship game – and Gold has lost its last 7 times in the championship game.
Talk about a curse.
Then again, the Cubs broke their 108-year curse in November…so will the Ramblers role in March, too?
Quite possibly. This is a good team, a very good team, anchored by five returning defensemen.
“I think we’re off to a good start, but from my standpoint, we’re still making some mental errors that definitely need to be taken care of,” said longtime Loyola Gold coach D.J. LaVarre, who pointed to the team’s 5-1 loss to New Trier Green in mid-October. “We played out of our game plan, started to play as individuals as opposed as a team, and took some bad penalties.
“For us to have success this season, we have to play our game plan, play within ourselves and, as I like to say, understand what the process is and do the process.”
LaVarre added, “I’m a big believer in, it’s not how you start (the season), but rather, how you finish. And every game is a step up the ladder.”
LaVarre has been on the Loyola bench since 1990, the head coach since 1993, with a year off in about 2000.
Loyola’s schedule is quite diverse. For instance, it skates in the Midwest Prep Hockey League, and has struggled to secure wins, so far. The Ramblers are 2-7 in the MPHL and have lost their last 5 games.
However, in Scholastic Hockey League play, the Ramblers stand at 17-3. All three setbacks have been to none other than arch-rival New Trier Green, most recently on Dec. 17, when the Trevians won 5-3 at Heartland Ice Arena in Lincolnwood. So much for Loyola’s home-ice advantage. The Trevians also have defeated Gold 5-1 and 5-4 this season.
Mid-season tournaments have not been too glamourous for these Ramblers. In Loyola’s own Thanksgiving Tournament, the Ramblers defeated Evanston and Notre Dame, and settled for a 2-2 tie against St. Ignatius in round-robin play. The Ramblers then lost to Glenbrook North 2-1 in the semifinals.
In the prestigious international high school tournament held in Darien in early-December, the Ramblers went 1-3, only scoring a victory over the North Carolina Force.
“We lost a lot of offense off last season’s team, and a lot of this year’s (forwards) are being put into new roles. Plus, the new kids to the team are just learning now what it takes and what it means to be on the Gold team, and they’re learning their roles,” LaVarre said.
The Ramblers top scorers in Scholastic League play are Dan Sullivan, Jack Purcell and Austin Eng – and none have been able to crack the league’s top 10 list. Sullivan has 16 points (9 goals, 7 assists) in 19 games, while Purcell and Eng have 15 and 14 points each, respectively.
Glenbrook North forward Nick Mikhaylov is skating away with the Scholastic scoring title, with 19 goals, 10 assists (29 points) in only 14 games played. He even has 7 power play goals.
The Ramblers’ defense has been mighty stingy in Scholastic League play. Loyola has outscored its foes 93-34, and in 13 games, the team has allowed no more than 1 goal.
“On defense, we’re pretty happy with where we’re at. (All seven defensemen have been) doing well so far,” LaVarre said.
Thomas Moran has a 10-0 record in Scholastic League play, while fellow goalie Ryan Trueman is 5-2. “So far, both have been strong this season; they are doing a great job,” LaVarre said. “I’m fortunate, I have a 1A and a 1B goalie. They thrive on the competition between themselves, but also pick each other up whenever needed.
“They are top-notch goalies in (the Scholastic) League and in the state.”
The Ramblers have 34 points through 20 Scholastic League games, good for second-place. The Trevians have a 17-0-0-1 record (35 points), with its lone blemish coming Oct. 29 at Carmel. Since then, Green has won 11 in a row, and the Trevians return to Scholastic League play on Jan. 6 at York, then the following night in Wilmette against Fenwick, and on Jan. 8 against the talented New Trier Blue club.
Loyola, meanwhile, visits Stevenson in Buffalo Grove on Jan. 11, then battles York on Jan. 19 and a home-and-home series against perennial power GBN on Jan. 21-22.
“Last year’s team and this year’s team are very different,” LaVarre said. “We’re not quite as big, but we’re just as fast – and speed is the key to our game, on both offense and defense.”
The Ramblers long-term prognosis is even brighter since the team had a strong start despite missing some key components. For instance, senior defenseman Kyle Rock has missed games, as have forwards senior David Klauke and sophomore Jake Gonzalez. All joined the team in December.
“The team has been working hard all season; they have a lot of enthusiasm,” LaVarre said.
Senior captain Parker Ray is in his fourth year on the team, coming off a first-team All-SHL season as a junior. “He does everything for us,” LaVarre said. “He is a puck-moving defenseman, and also a shut-down defenseman. He excels at all aspects of the game, sees the ice very well. His biggest asset is his skating and how strong he is on his skates.”
Senior captain Ben Odle also is a defensive anchor for the Ramblers.
LaVarre said Sullivan is playing “big time hockey.”
Two key senior forwards for the Ramblers are Justin Ciesla and Anthony Guzzardo. “They are real energy guys,” LaVarre said. “When those guys are on, and playing well, things happen for us.”
This season’s breakout players for Gold have been Nick Liebers and Declan Darcy, the two new defensemen who LaVarre said, “have fit in seamlessly.”
After Green, LaVarre said the run to the United Center for the state championship will, or could, run through Providence, Benet, Glenbrook North, Brother Rice, Notre Dame, St. Rita, and St. Ignatius. He tagged Stevenson as a “sleeper.”
“When the state (tournament) bracket is released, match ups play a huge part (into who will advance) because some teams just match up well against some teams, and some they don’t,” LaVarre. “Lady Luck also plays into the tournament.
“The goal is to make it to the United Center every year, but that’s not easy and a lot of factors go in to making it there. But can we make it there? Yes.
“Hey, anything’s possible…the Cubs won the World Series.”
AROUND THE RINK
Loyola JV leads the Scholastic League with a 16-2-0-0-1 record, two points ahead of Fenwick (15-5-0-0-1). Loyola’s Teddy Starr has 13 goals, 11 assists to lead the league, while Stevenson’s Trevor Hilt has 11 goals, 10 assists … The top-tiered Champions League of the North-Central Division is a great battle for bragging rights as New Trier White has 23 points (11-2-1), two points ahead of Loyola Maroon, while BG/H/W has 19 points (9-1-1) and has three games to play. BG/H/W, the defending Combined Division State Champions, have two of the best forwards in the state: senior Nick Christianson and junior Connor Kelly; each has 25 points in 11 games … PREP leads the Sterling League of the North-Central Division, but will be tested in January by Deerfield, Warren and Libertyville … Lake Zurich is a perfect 9-0 in Platinum League games and has only allowed 11 goals in 9 games … The AWF Renegades are 10-0 in Suburban League play. DHS and the Fox Valley Hawks also have had a strong showing so far … It’s been a rough season for the Spartans of Suburban League play. The team is 0-9-0-1. Senior forward Jeremy Lochow has 10 goals, 1 assist in 10 games. Goalies Jonathan Finlon and Sean Hockenberry have been splitting playing time … Neuqua Valley closed out its December schedule of West League play with wins over Maine Township (5-1), Hinsdale Central (7-1) and Wheaton West (4-2) on consecutive nights in mid-December. Neuqua has an explosive offense, with junior Ben Granato and senior Reid Martin seeking the team’s scoring title. Granato has 35 goals, 16 assists in 20 games played, one point more than Martin (19 goals, 33 assists) … As for the West Division Scoring Title, the race appears to be won by Naperville Central’s Andrew Maynard, who has 49 goals, 21 assists in 17 games, including 8 game-winning goals … Glenbrook South has won more Metro Girls games so far than goals allowed. The team is 11-0, with 75 goals for and only 9 goals against. Glenbrook South has five fighting for the team lead in scoring: sophomore defenseman Madeline Dunham, junior forward Nicole Knudson, sophomore forward Katerina Poulos, sophomore forward Lily Cataldo, and junior forward Hannah Jensen.
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.