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Feature story: Loyola ready for its playoff close-up

By Patrick Z. McGavin , 05/19/23, 1:15AM CDT


The game remains the same. But in the state tournament, every action is more consequential and significant, early leads are more threatening, and every goal- scoring chance has to be maximized.

Players like Ellie Bradley and Ellie Vehovsky understand the dynamic. The different stages of the season, big tournament games, crucial conference matchups, bleed into a supernova of chance, motivation and opportunity.

“We beat Fenwick 2-0 in our last conference game, and our team mentality is in a great place,” Vehovsky said. “It was nice to have a 10-day break, which gave us the opportunity to train hard and get ready to go up the hill again.”

Winning the Red Division in the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference is the expected outcome for the Ramblers.

As the third-seed and regional host in the Class 3A Evanston Sectional, the team is ready for the next step.

Loyola (10-6-3) won for the seventh time in its last nine games with the 6-0 regional semifinal victory over Taft on Wednesday.

The Ramblers host vastly improved Niles West (15-5-1), the six-seed, in the regional championship Friday.

A junior forward, Vehovsky has been one of the revelations for Loyola. After graduating the bulk of its offensive attack, the Ramblers had to uncover new and emerging talent.

Showing quickness, poise, and a terrific sense of the ball, Vehovsky has been a standout. Her outlook mirrors that of the team.

“There’s a lot of confidence across our entire team, and it feels we are peaking at the right time of the season,” she said. “We are going one game at a time, knowing we need to focus in order to make a run.

“I am confident in this team, and myself, to get the wins this year.”

The state tournament is the culmination of a season marked by the highest caliber of play. 

Loyola played in the Rose Augsburg-Drach Invitational, the Lou Malnati’s Deep Dish Classic and the Naperville Invitational, all tournaments marked by strong fields.

The only losses during the current run came in a shootout against 2022 state finalist Barrington and a tight game against rival New Trier.

“We just want to play the best competition to prepare us for the postseason run,” coach Shannon Hartinger said. “I think teams were finding out that our record probably wasn't a good indication of us as a team.

“I'm really proud of our growth. And I think for us, we performed well but in a lot of games didn't necessarily get the result. Toward the end of the season, we were performing better and getting the results, so it's starting to come together for us.”

Loyola has found a way, overcoming adversity, injuries and the early season lack of experience.

Now the signs all point in one direction, a jutting upper-trajectory, the equivalent of an upper-90 shot.

“I think we've started to take the steps forward,” Hartinger said. “We've played a few games where we did not have our full lineup. 

“We keep working, and I think we're also proud of the way that our depth has come along. We have been able to rotate different players in the absence of some of our big players.”

Defense and goalkeeping take on a heightened importance during the state tournament. The Ramblers have one of the state’s best in senior keeper Ellie Bradley, named the conference Player of the Year and a 2022 Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater.

The shutout against Taft on Tuesday was Loyola’s 10th of the season.

Bradley has six shutouts in the last nine games, and the Ramblers have posted a 32-4 goal differential during the 7-2-0 stretch.

“Everybody is ready and excited for the playoffs,” Bradley said.

“I’d say our strong finish to our regular-season has helped the mentality. It has given us confidence and shown us that we can play with the best and perform at a high level.”

Defenders Emily Pikarski, Ellianna Seeley and Maria Nikas are rock solid, tough, physical and highly skilled. Moving forward, this is a team that is going to be hard to generate significant scoring chances against.

“We have been working really hard, and preparing our bodies and our chemistry for the upcoming games,” said Pikarski, the Ramblers other returning 2022 Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater. “I think our mentality is proving people who doubted us wrong, and that will make it very far.

“We work hard for each other, and we are willing to do whatever it takes. That is something that not all teams have.”

Sophomore midfielder Claire Brady is a rising star, and Vehovsky and forward Ella Couri bring athletic and dynamic actions at the top of the formation.

Players like Bradley, Pikarski and Seeley started on a team that played Evanston in the sectional final last year.

The moment is now.

“After graduating 15 players last year, I am very proud of the progression of this season,” Hartinger said.