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Luther North four-year start Nick Shores (70) holds the school’s career records in solo tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. | Jon Durr~For Sun-Times Media
Nick Shores heard all the rumors.
“I heard our school was going to get closed down,” said Shores, a Luther North senior. “I heard our football program was going to get closed down.”
The Northwest Side school is still open, thanks to a successful fund-raising drive two years ago. And the Luther North football team, which was hanging on for dear life a few seasons back, is preparing for its first postseason game in 23 years. On Friday, the Wildcats travel to Ottawa Marquette (9-0) in a Class 1A opener. The teams also met in Week 8 in Ottawa, with Marquette winning 40-6.
However the rematch goes, the Wildcats (5-4) have emerged as one of the season’s feel-good stories. They’ve done it four years after having to forfeit three games because of low numbers, three seasons after snapping a 22-game losing streak and one year removed from getting through a 2-7 campaign with just 18 players in the entire program.
Ricky Ludwig is in his second season as head coach at his alma mater, just eight years after graduating. “We always had talent but we didn’t win much when I was here,” Ludwig said. “I tell the guys, ‘I know what you’re going through.’”
Like a lot of private schools, Luther North has seen its enrollment tumble as the economy has gone south. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was a big school and they were good at football,” Ludwig said.
The Wildcats made three playoff appearances in the ’80s in Class 3A. The last came in 1989, when they were 8-2 — the program’s last winning season.
Now there are 163 students in the building and 28 football players, all on the varsity. The uncertainty over the school’s future two years ago made for an unusually small junior class, which has produced just two football players. “We’re doing this a lot with sophomores and freshmen,” Ludwig said.
There are also a few seniors like Shores, a four-year starter at nose guard who holds the school’s career records in solo tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. “He’s been a stud since he was a freshman,” Ludwig said.
Quarterback/safety Jacob Ortiz, tight end/cornerback Andrew Giourdas and offensive guard Aaron Williams also have been through the ups and downs of the past four seasons. Ortiz may have made the play of the year for the Wildcats when he sneaked in from a yard out on fourth down with one second left for the winning touchdown in a 32-30 victory over Hope Academy in Week 5.
Other playmakers for the Wildcats, who run out the double wing, include sophomore running backs Felix Loja (1,200-plus yards, 14 touchdowns) and Anthony Vega (600-plus yards, seven touchdowns) along with junior fullback Jeremy Jensen, a converted lineman.
With a roster this small, the Wildcats need contributions from about everyone. And that’s what they’ve had, according to Shores.
“We weren’t being a team,” he said. “That’s why we lost. As we kept going, we got players who want to be [part of] a team.”
Now Luther North is part of the 256-school playoff field.
“We’ll have a good week of practice,” Shores said. “We’ll see where it takes us.”