Preseason No. 11: Loyola

Malcolm Weaver returns at quarterback for No. 11 Loyola. Scott Powers/ESPNChicago.com

Last season: 11-2 overall, 4-1 Catholic League Blue, lost in the Class 8A semifinals to Maine South, ranked No. 4 in the final ESPNChicago.com 2010 poll

Season ahead: No team would like to see Maine South’s Class 8A reign end more than Loyola.

The Ramblers have had their state championship hopes dashed by Maine South the past two seasons in the Class 8A state semifinals. Maine South went on to win the state championship both times.

Looking back at what got them there, Loyola coach John Holecek believes his team knows what it takes to make another state run and hopefully finish it.

“I think taking one game at a time, taking one play at a time, taking care of those little things,” Holecek said. “You look back on film, and those games are won and lost on the little things. I think we have a script that we know what we’re doing.”

Loyola’s defense under Holecek has consistently been among the state’s best, and he anticipated continuing that tradition despite only having three returning starters this season.

“Here, we play good defensive football,” Holecek said. “We expect that every year no matter who we play. We expect to be very tough on defense.”

The offense has similar expectations with quarterback Malcolm Weaver, wide receivers Marquese Martin-Hayes and Charlie Dowdle, offensive lineman Robert Delaney and running back Willie Palivos all returning.

“I know we’re good,” Holecek said. “I don’t know if we’re very good or a great team. You won’t see that until you play Evanston and Montini. I don’t know if we have the ability to play with the big boys.”

Star power: Weaver was among the area’s top quarterbacks as a junior. He’s a true dual-threat quarterback. He has the speed to beat defenses with his legs and also the arm to throw it past them. “He knows the offense,” Holecek said. “It looks like he’s stronger and faster. I want him to do what’s successful. If they’re covering our receivers, which will be a hard chore, we’ll be running the ball with the running backs and Malcolm.”

Breakout performers: Wide receiver E.J. Webb was the star of Loyola’s passing attack last season. With Webb now graduated, watch for Martin-Hayes and Dowdle to continue in his footsteps. Martin-Hayes and Dowdle were key pieces to Loyola’s offense last season, but they should have even bigger roles this season. “Charlie is a big, tall, tough kid that catches everything,” Holecek said. “Marquese has that top end speed and has great hands.”

Defensive difference-makers: The Ramblers return three defensive starters from last season, and all three are expected to be forces. The trio includes linebacker Daveed Carter and defensive backs Scott Suhey and Robert Dooley. “They should all be good players,” Holecek said.

Newcomer to watch: Luke Ford is expected to step into the secondary and contribute right away. “He’s tall, smart and athletic,” Holecek said.

Schedule breakdown: There won’t be many easy games for the Ramblers again this season. They face one of the state’s best offenses in Montini during their non-conference season and again have to go through the weekly grind of the Catholic League Blue. The one advantage to their schedule is they host Montini, Mount Carmel and St. Rita. “I think every year it’s completely open,” Holecek said of the Catholic League. “Unless you’re returning 15 starters or more, every year is a question mark.”

Key game: Oct. 22 vs. St. Rita -- Loyola earned itself a share of the Catholic League title last season by knocking off St. Rita on the road. Both teams are expected to be among the conference contenders again, and St. Rita will certainly be looking for revenge on Loyola’s field to end the regular season.

What they’re saying: “I don’t think this school is going to provide too many years where we’re bare in the talent pool,” Holecek said. “We have a collection of kids who know how to play football, are tough and want to play football. We’ll always have a chance.”