But in Saturday night's Class 8A championship game at the University of Illinois, the 26th-seeded Hawks not only aced their retake against top-seed and defending state champion Loyola, but they graduated with honors.
Maine South earned a 27-17 victory, outscoring the previously undefeated Ramblers 17-3 in the second half. By avenging a loss to the Ramblers in Week 2, the Hawks captured the sixth state title in program history and first since 2010. Maine South also ended Loyola's 30-game winning streak.
"We're legends now. We created history. We're the only three-loss team (in program history) to win state," said Maine South senior safety Jack Hoffman, who lives in Park Ridge.
That detail is significant because the Hawks (11-3) clearly learned from their mistakes. They also avenged a Week 3 loss to Barrington in the second round of the playoffs, and improved as the season progressed.
"To be the first Maine South championship team to have three losses and to have some payback for two of those losses, shows what these kids can do in terms of preparation," Maine South coach Dave Inserra said. "They understand what needs to be executed and how to get the job done on the second go-around."
The Maine South team that lost 44-43 to Loyola in Week 2, was a squad best suited for an offensive shootout against quality opponents.
But at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, the Hawks' defense took center stage, holding Loyola (13-1) to its lowest point total of the season.
Maine South caused two turnovers: Hoffman picked off a pass — just the second interception Loyola senior quarterback Tommy Herion threw all season — and collected a fumble that resulted from a hit by senior linebacker Jack Pistorius. Loyola's standout wide receiver Jake Marwede, who has verbally committed to Duke, caught one pass and was targeted just twice.
"Our defense early in the season was sort of a crutch for our team," Hoffman said. "But after games, we'd come back in Sunday morning, work and do drills and watch extra film together. That brought us together as a unit. We really started to trust each other. Once we started to do that, we started making plays."
Offensively, Maine South junior running back Fotis Kokosioulis carried 18 times for 106 yards in the championship game. Senior quarterback Nick Leongas ran 20 times for 76 yards and two touchdowns, and also completed 11-of-20 passes for 124 yards and a score. Senior receiver Luke Hinkamp caught the touchdown.
Maine South senior offensive tackle, linebacker, punter and kicker Sean McNulty may have been the team's MVP in the game. He played every down on offense, had punts settle inside the 20-yard line four times, kicked field goals of 25 and 18 yards and had the hardest hit of the night on a third-quarter pop of Herion.
However, McNulty admitted his team was somewhat demoralized when it went into the locker room trailing 14-10 after Loyola had scored a late first-half touchdown.
But McNulty said Inserra came in and rallied the Hawks, reminding the team it was always going to be a 48-minute battle.
Then, Inserra kept the starters back in the locker room while the other players went to warm up. The moment was significant, according to McNulty.
"He said, 'This one is on us. If we play our game, we're going to come out on top,' " said McNulty, who lives in Park Ridge. "We came out with a passion in the second half. We made a few plays, a few plays went our way and the rest is history."
The previous week, Loyola had led Glenbard West 14-7 at halftime before the Ramblers scored on their first possession of the second half and took over the game, eventually winning 42-13.
But there was no Ramblers second-half surge on Saturday. Instead, Maine South held Loyola to a three-and-out on its first possession of the second half. Then, on the Hawks' first possession, they regained the lead and the momentum with Leongas' 20-yard touchdown pass to Hinkamp.
Though Loyola would tie the game at 17-17 late in the third, the opening minutes of the second half were an indication the game would remain close.
Leongas gave his team the lead for good with a 17-yard run right up the middle with 10:22 remaining. It came on the first play after Herion fumbled and two plays after McNulty punted the ball 66 yards. McNulty added a late field goal.
When the clock hit zero, Leongas and Hinkamp tried a chest bump, which resulted in the smaller Leongas landing on the ground. Then all the Hawks piled on Leongas, who said he started to cry.
"Honestly, the greatest feeling in the world," said Leongas, who lives in Park Ridge.
The quarterback added: "The legacy of this team is its grit. No matter what came at us, the two early losses and the New Trier loss (in Week 7), which stunned us. But we bounced back, did everything we needed to, trusted the coaches and our system. We just bounced back."
Dan Shalin is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.