PARK RIDGE, Ill. -- A year ago, Tyler Benz enjoyed every minute as Maine South reached the state championship.
It wasn't the same as Saturday, though. Last year, he was a role player. On Saturday, he was the starting quarterback and a hero. Saturday was better.
Benz was lifted onto the shoulders of his classmates after he threw two touchdowns and ran for another to lead No. 1 Maine South to its second consecutive Class 8A state championship appearance with a 21-14 win over visiting Loyola.
"It's all awesome," Benz said after the game.
Benz's performance was especially needed as Loyola's defense was able to contain all-state running back Matt Perez. Perez also left the game early in the fourth quarter with a thigh injury and never returned. He finished with 63 rushing yards.
"We knew they were going to stop Matt because their front seven was real big and physical," Benz said. "We knew coming into the game the ball was going to be in my hands more. I always like having the game in my hands."
Benz especially had control of the game late in the third quarter with Maine South facing a fourth-and-4 on Loyola's 17-yard line with the game tied at 14. Benz hiked the ball, dropped back, couldn't find anyone open, scrambled around as he avoided Loyola's defenders and finally found wide receiver Alex Romano in the middle of the field for a 14-yard pass play and a first down.
"That was beautiful," said Maine South coach David Inserra, whose team won its 27th consecutive game. "He was going to tuck it and run it, then he decided, 'Hey, I'm going to hang in there, hang in there.' Guys broke their patterns. That was probably the play of the game.
"We just talked about having poise. 'They're going to hit you at times. They're going to get you moving at times.' He showed that poise. That was a huge, huge completion, obviously."
From there, the Hawks' defense came up huge.
Loyola was given four more possessions before its chances ran out. On the first, the Ramblers were driving when they fumbled a handoff and Maine South linebacker Marcus Nelli recovered it on the Hawks' 35-yard line. On the second, Loyola was forced to punt.
On the third, the Ramblers were threatening to tie the game. They moved the ball down to Maine South's 13-yard line with just under four minutes remaining. On third-and-6, Ramblers quarterback Will Forsyth's pass soared over his intended target and Hawks safety Mike Divito intercepted the ball. Maine South's students later would lift Divito on their shoulders as well.
"Mike Divito's interception was huge," Benz said. "It was a big turning point in the game."
The Ramblers would get the ball one final time with 36 seconds left. They were able to advance it to Maine South's 35, but Forsyth's final heave into the end zone fell incomplete.
As time expired, Maine South's players raced onto the field and celebrated near the north end zone. Inserra also ran on the field, chest-bumped two players and embraced Divito.
"It doesn't get old," Inserra said. "It doesn't get old. That's beautiful. What is this? Five trips [to the state title game]. It's like the first."
For Loyola, falling one game short of reaching the school's first state championship game since 1993 was difficult.
"We felt we were going to come out and win this," Forsyth said. "It's pretty tough right now. Our team played a hell of a game. It was a hell of a season, better than we ever thought."
Maine South went up 7-0 on an 18-yard pass from Benz to wide receiver Luke Mottley in the first quarter. Loyola answered with a 40-yard touchdown pass from Forsyth to wide receiver Joseph Gross and then went up 14-7 with a 71-yard run by Forsyth. Maine South tied the score at 14 just before halftime when Benz threw a 23-yard touchdown to Romano.
"We expected it to be, but we didn't want it to be this close," Divito said. "They fought us to the end. We really had to play hard and play our best, and we did."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.