By Ross Forman
During the 2018 Illinois High School Hockey state tournament, Loyola Gold had a simple, direct rally-cry: End The Drought.
And that they did, as the Ramblers last March defeated Stevenson 4-2 in the Red Division finals for the Illinois High School Hockey State Championship, played at the United Center. The state title was the first for perennial power Loyola Gold in 22 years.
Now that the 2018-19 season is here, Loyola Gold has another simple, direct rally-cry: Repeat.
Loyola Gold wants to skate for state next March, too.
“It was a great year for the team, the program and the school,” Ramblers co-head coach D.J. LaVarre said. “The thing that struck me the most was, I can’t believe it’s been 22 years; it doesn’t seem that long.
“Winning state was very surreal at the moment. The thing that really struck me (at the time) was, how fast the game went (by), and I still think about that.”
The title was followed by an in-school parade for the team, “which I thought was amazing,” said LaVarre, who joined the Ramblers coaching staff in 1990 and became the Gold head coach in 1993 – and the team hadn’t won state since back to back titles, 1995 and 1996.
“One thing I told the kids (after winning the title) was, never take things for granted and it will never get old.”
LaVarre admitted his phone was seemingly on fire as he left the United Center that memorable night, as he was flooded with hundreds of text messages, voice-mail messages, emails, Facebook messages, and more.
Several hundred reached out to the longtime coach. “I was a little overwhelmed by the outpouring,” he said.
“I was really happy, partially relieved.”
The Loyola Gold goal-scorers at the United Center were Aidan Finegan, Declan Darcy, Nick Liebers and Timmy Hackett – all of whom are back this season.
Yes, the Ramblers look poised to return to the United Center in 2019.
“As last year’s team found, this year’s team also will have to find its own identity. What is that identity? We hope to be a speed and puck-handling team,” LaVarre said. “That said, the season is a journey, with some ebb and flow, peaks and valleys. Through that journey and process, you find your own identity. This team will do that, too.
“Last season, we may have been thought of as a top five team in state (at the start of the season). This year, it’s different. It’s one thing to be the chaser; it’s another thing to be the chasee.
Loyola Gold is the season-opening No. 1-ranked team.
“At the start of the season, we are a clean canvas. By the end of the season, we’re painting that canvas – and how we want that canvas to look. We just have to go through the process to correctly paint that canvas,” LaVarre said.
The Ramblers have 12 returners: seven forwards, four defenseman and one goalie.
There are 10 new Gold players who played for Loyola Maroon last season, plus two newcomers to the program: sophomore forward Evan MacEwen and senior goalie Matthew Choate.
“The returners are definitely looking forward to this season; they definitely want to find their identity to this year’s team,” said LaVarre, who acknowledged that the bull’s-eye on the Loyola Gold jersey is not going to get any smaller this season, rather, it will continue to expand. After all, “we are the defending state champion and no one likes Loyola,” he added.
“We know we are going to get everyone’s best, and that will make us better because we cannot afford to take a night off, or even a shift. If we do, we’ll get beat. Knowing that we have a bull’s-eye on our back, it will help us be a better team.”
Two key newcomers to Gold are forwards Danny Huber and Matthew Schauwecker, both of whom skated for Maroon last season.
“We’re quick; we’re strong; we’re strong around the puck. We move the puck well. We play all three zones and all ends of the ice,” LaVarre said. “The last two years, with Maroon being very competitive at the varsity level, that has benefited the Gold team.”
Gold has four returning defensemen, and newcomer Eagan Callahan is a big, strong senior, LaVarre said.
“Every newcomer to Gold from Maroon has already played one or two seasons of varsity hockey; that’s a huge plus because they already know what varsity hockey is. They now just need to know how to play Loyola Gold hockey.
“I thought the parity last year was unbelievable. From what I’m seeing and hearing this year, I think we have a lot of parity this year too – and I think that’s great for the state and hockey overall.”
The Ramblers will be tested nightly in the Scholastic Hockey League, featuring archrival New Trier Green, plus challenges from Glenbrook North, Glenbrook South, Stevenson, St. Viator, Barrington, Fenwick and others.
“You learn from losses,” LaVarre said. “You learn resolve; you learn trust, and you learn how to go forward. I know we’ll hit some rough patches this season, but that’s when you learn the most about your team and how it reacts. We learned and reacted the most and the best from all setbacks last season; we became one; there was never any finger-pointing.
“I’m happy where we’re at right now. But I want to be happy with this team in February and March, not in September.”
When asked who might be the team’s breakout star, LaVarre couldn’t name one – and again he falls back to last season. “If I learned anything from last year, it is that you need everyone to contribute. If you have a breakout player, that’s gravy.”
That said, forward Owen Boersma could be that shining star in January and February, when games really matter.
LaVarre said he hasn’t considered retiring.
“I guess, when I stop having fun, I’ll stop coaching. Or when I stop thinking I’m making a difference, I’ll stop coaching then,” he said. “I guess it’s a feeling … and now I feel rejuvenated.”
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.