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Adapting, improvising makes small Loyola big-time

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Detroit Loyola defensive linemen go through drills during practice Wednesday.

Detroit – John Callahan calls it "A&I."

Adapt and improvise.

That's the Detroit Loyola way, and the head coach and a staff of selfless assistants have ridden that mantra to stunning success over the last several seasons, including a state championship in 2014.

It's been another hectic year at Loyola, which again is in the state playoffs -- for the eighth time in the eight years under Callahan, whose team plays a "home" game at 7 p.m. Saturday at Hazel Park, against Madison Heights Madison in Division 7.

"If you can't 'A&I,' then you can't coach here," Callahan said this week. "Because that's the way it is."

There always are challenges for athletics at Loyola, a small, all-boys Catholic-Jesuit school (enrollment, 136) located off the Lodge and Wyoming Street.

It didn't stop Loyola from making three straight state finals (2012-14) and the semifinal a year ago. Yet, this year has been perhaps more "A&I"-heavy than any before it. But Loyola is back playing playoff football, after finishing the regular season 7-2, despite the smallest varsity roster in school history, at just 23 players.

Because of a litany of key injuries, the junior varsity team, which had a larger roster of 25, had to send 10 players to varsity starting with last week's Prep Bowl.

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Fortunately for Loyola, it seems set to get several key players back for the game against 6-3 Madison.

But every football team deals with injuries. Not every team deals with the conditions at Loyola -- starting with no home field, an on-site practice field that has all the charm of a landfill, and a backup practice field that doubles as the cramped school gym, which used to be a chapel.

"What can I say?" Callahan said, chuckling. "It's ours, and that's where we go to work."

Practice challenges

It rained all day Wednesday, making Loyola's 60-yard-by-60-yard practice field unplayable. The surface, out back of the school, is an old parking lot that school officials simply poured dirt onto. That means grass can't grow there; they've tried.

With no grass and only dirt, it can't be used on rainy days. Usually, they head to the gym when it's been raining, but Wednesday, they got a break, when Detroit Country Day offered its football field for Loyola to practice on.

Detroit Loyola football coach John Callahan talks to his team before the start of practice.

And what a treat that was.

"It was probably the best practice we've had all year," Callahan said. "As coaches, we were talking afterward -- we had 100 yards of turf field, with numbers and hash marks! A football coach will understand this. We practice every day on a dirt field with no lines. We tried to line the field, but with dirt and rain, it usually lasts a day or two.

"Coaches will use hash marks and numbers; they are so critical for reference points for the kids to understand."

At Loyola, the reference points aren't hash marks or numbers, but rather orange cones and a manhole cover. Yes, a manhole cover.

Out of bounds is simple. If you run into the fence, you're out of bounds.

The coaches also use old footballs for extra-point kicking practice, because you have to walk around and outside the fence to retrieve the footballs -- and by the time you get there, the balls usually are gone.

"You make the best out of the situation you can," Callahan said. "That's a credit not to me as much as it is to my coaches. The phenomenal success we've had is due to the quality of coaches we've had. I'm very fortunate.

"To have the temperament and ability to coach under these circumstances, it's not an easy thing to do."

D'Anthony Robinson has rushed for more than 900 yards this season.

Among the staff members are Mark Shea, the former basketball and football coach at Cabrini; Mike Dennis; Paul D'Luge, the former coach at U-D Jesuit; Wayne Pritchett; Tony Johnson, who grew up in the shadows of Loyola; and Kevin Harris, a former player on one of Callahan's early teams at Loyola.

Most days, Country Day isn't available to Loyola; even Wednesday, while it was a nice surprise, it made for a long day. The team bus couldn't leave until nearly 5 p.m., and it didn't return to Loyola till 9 p.m.

That's because Loyola doesn't just have to work around the school hours and the tough practice conditions, it also has to work around players' schedules.

Almost every varsity player at Loyola spends one full day a week at work-study, working at a real job like a bank or a lawyer's office. Most Loyola students can't afford the tuition, so the money earned during work-study helps pay the bill.

That means at times the football team is practicing without several star players who are spread out across the city working, or the football team is waiting around till those players get picked up by a van around 5 p.m. and returned to the school. Sometimes, when Loyola has a Saturday game, it has no Friday walk-through; class lets out at 2:15 on Friday, and Callahan can't stand to have half the team sitting around for three hours until other kids get back from work.

Work-study is a great program, to be sure; it teaches real-life skills, and often leads to full-time summer jobs.

For the football team, it's one more thing to "A&I" around.

"It's tough on me," Callahan said. "But I understand it."

‘They lift … and they lift’

Loyola, which doesn't get many transfers like other private schools, is at a competitive disadvantage in so many ways. But it does have one significant advantage -- a state-of-the-art weight room, built off a fundraising effort spearheaded by Callahan.

Foes often wonder why Loyola players are so big; well, there's your answer. It's open year-round, except on Christmas, and Callahan said he wouldn't be surprised if some players sneak in there on Dec. 25 anyway.

Hunter Harris is an all-state receiver for Detroit Loyola.

"These kids, they lift," said Callahan, "and they lift some more. I'd never been in a program that had to kick kids out of the weight room."

It's that weight and conditioning room that, no doubt, will help in getting Loyola back some of its injured players, perhaps as early as Saturday's playoff game -- including Kailen Abrams, an all-state linebacker / guard; Rico Sims, a running back / safety; Keshawn Tyson, a defensive end / guard; and maybe even Hunter Harris, an all-state receiver.

Healthy stars for Loyola include Price Watkins, who has six interceptions as a cornerback, and has rushed for over 500 yards and eight touchdowns and a quarterback; Macolm Mays, a running back / linebacker who's rushed for nearly 900 yards and eight TDs; as well as D'Anthony Robinson, a sophomore who rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman before breaking his leg. Robinson is over 900 rushing yards again this year. Then there's Keith Johnson, a tight end / inside linebacker; and Teron Johnson, an offensive and defensive lineman.

You can see the other theme for a small school like Loyola -- lots of two-way players, because there's no other choice.

"Most of my seniors have been in the program for three-four years, they've witnessed the success of the previous teams," Callahan said. "They are trying to emulate that. I hate saying the word 'traditional' but it's becoming a tradition.

"You're expected to be in the Prep Bowl and state playoffs, and be successful in both.

With plenty of adapting and improvising along the way.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter @tonypaul1984