Jake McElroy remembers it well, though not too fondly.
The feeling of the clock ticking away, a death sentence for the Loyola Sacred Heart football season. The way the Fairfield boys celebrated in front of their home crowd, knowing it would be them playing for a state championship the next week and not McElroy’s Rams.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever cried and hopefully it’s the last time I’ve ever cried on a football field,” said McElroy, a sophomore lineman that day in November 2011.
The Rams fell 36-7 to the eventual State B champions from Fairfield. Almost two years to the day have passed since that semifinal defeat. Loyola hasn’t lost since.
* * * * *
Loyola Sacred Heart, Missoula’s Class B private Catholic high school, has established itself as not only the most successful team in the city in recent years, but one of the top programs in the state of Montana.
The Rams boast the state’s longest winning streak – at any level of play mind you – carrying a stretch of 22 straight victories into this Saturday’s contest in Baker. It’s there that Loyola plays for a second consecutive state title.
That game features a pair of powers on the Class B circuit. Baker owns a half dozen state titles and brings an 11-0 record into the championship clash. Loyola is also undefeated, a spotless 10-0 record its proof.
“A few years ago it was all Fairfield, Baker, (and) Malta,” Loyola lineman Jared Geer said of the trio of central and eastern Montana schools, at least one of which has appeared in the last 10 State B championships. “Those were the big names. It’s kind of switching over, going back west and it’s more even. It’s just better games now.”
Geer and McElroy are each three-year starters for the Rams, manning the line since they were sophomores together in 2011. In that time, Loyola has put together one of the greatest stretches of football in school history.
Loyola’s most recent three-year varsity record stands at 30-3, including seasons of 12-0 and 8-3 from the previous two years. The senior class – which includes 10 players – has never lost a game at home on the turf of Rollin Field.
“And I don’t plan on losing my junior or senior year either,” McElroy added.
Of course the stipulation for such a feat means finishing off 2013 undefeated and beating Baker. The Rams will face one more hurdle this year when the Spartans host them Saturday for a 1 p.m. kickoff in the title game.
* * * * *
You have free articles remaining.
It hasn’t always been easy for the champions from District 6-B in this, their eighth consecutive playoff appearance. Loyola won both its first two playoff games in less-than-convincing manner earlier this month.
The Rams edged Forsyth with a touchdown in the second overtime period of a first-rounder and escaped from Red Lodge with an even closer run-in in the quarters. Red Lodge scored a touchdown with 18 seconds left and, instead of kicking the extra point to tie the game at 34-all, elected to go for two points and the win. The Loyola defense squashed the run at the goal line to save its season.
“Those first two games were rollercoasters,” senior running back Tony Madsen said. “We got up on those two teams and we should have finished them, but we let them back into the game.”
To their credit, the Rams rolled in the semifinal. After leading just 7-0 at halftime, Loyola brutalized Boulder in the second half of a 41-7 final.
Not that the close scores have Loyola coach Dan Weber worried. This group has no problem pulling one out late with opponents barreling down. The Rams won their first state championship last season with a close 20-14 victory over Malta.
* * * * *
It’s hard to believe that the 2012 championship for the football-playing Rams was the first in Loyola’s 100-year existence, given the types of teams the program has had along the way. Recently, that includes a semifinal push two years ago and a runner-up finish from a few years back in 2006.
But the current boys aren’t lingering on past success. They haven’t all year, starting even before designated fall practices.
Over the summer, the seniors wanted to make their final high school season different. They wanted to leave their mark on it, Weber said. That included tweaks to how they run practices and attending Montana-Western’s football camp in Dillon in July instead of the usual one at Butte’s Montana Tech.
“No, most classes are more than willing to follow in the footsteps of those before them,” said Weber, a seventh-year head man for Loyola with another 30 years of assistant coaching experience leading the Rams. “These guys wanted to step out and do it their own way.”
It was not disrespect to the great leaders and athletes who’d recently departed the halls of Loyola Sacred Heart, Geer said. For a realistic shot at the 2013 state championship, they had to leave the one from 2012 behind.
“We’re certainly not last year’s team. We were sick of hearing, ‘Oh, once Josh (Janssen) and Bo (Hughes) are gone this year, or once Chris Sellman or Kieran (Collins) are gone this year, it’s going to tank,’ ” Geer said, listing off recent Loyola grads who starred on the football field in their time as prep athletes in Missoula. Janssen is redshirting at receiver this year at Montana, while Hughes is redshirting at defensive back for Montana State.
“We had to bring our own image to it and we had to show we’re still the state champions,” Geer continued. “We’ve still got a bunch of the guys that are still state champions, they’re still on this team, and we’re going to go after it and get that state championship again.”