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‘Living our dreams through these kids’

March 31, 2018 GMT

Three former La Porte County basketball stars, who never made it to the NCAA tournament when they played collegiately at Loyola Chicago, are getting another chance to experience the glory as they root on the upstarts from Chicago’s north side in the NCAA Final Four.

“It’s something we always wanted to do when we were in college, get to the big tournament,” 1987 Rogers High School graduate Keith Gailes said. “Now we are living out our dreams through these kids.”

Gailes and Keir Rogers, another 1987 Rogers High grad, have attended every Loyola game so far in the NCAA tournament along with a group of former alums, some all the way from China.

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And while he didn’t make the road trips, 1988 La Porte High School graduate Eric Dolezal was cheering the team on from Northwest Indiana.

During the first round in Dallas, they saw the 11th-seeded Ramblers upset No. 6 Miami 64-62, and then No. 3 Tennessee 63-62, both on last-second shots.

“It was absolutely nuts, but all in a positive way,” Rogers said. “That is such a likable group of kids – the kind of people you want to be around.”

“It was just an awesome experience,” Gailes said.

Dolezal said the Ramblers’ Cinderella run has been a cause for celebration.

“It’s been great. We’ve gone to a lot of different parties, and lots of former teammates have been getting together online, chatting and sharing stroies and photos and memories.”

Rogers, now a middle school principal in suburban Mount Prospect, Illinois, attended most Loyola home games this season, and always knew the potential was there.

“Based on their conference play, anything was possible. I felt like the key piece to all this was chemistry. It’s a special kind of chemistry out there on the court.”

Gailes lives in Texarkana, Texas, where he is a program director with Texas Child Protective Services. He thinks defense makes the Ramblers stand apart. “Oh yeah! I knew when they won their conference tournament they could go a long way.”

Dolezal, now living back in La Porte and working as an insurance risk management broker in South Bend, agrees that defense and chemistry have carried the Ramblers.

“I’ve seen them play all year, and my big thing is they are a different kind of team. The Big Division I schools have the 5-star recruits, some real NBA talent. This team has some great athletes, but not the 5-star guys.

“They just play great defense and they play well together. They always make that extra pass to get a guy an open shot. There is some real chemistry there.”

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After the stunners in Dallas, it was on to the Sweet 16 in Atlanta, where the upsets kept coming, first a nail-biter over No. 7 Nevada 69-68, then a blowout of No. 9 Kansas State 78-62.

Suddenly, the Ramblers were the fourth-ever No. 11 seed to advance to the Final Four.

“It was pretty nuts,” Rogers said of the scene after the win that propelled Loyola to a national semifinal matchup Saturday in San Antonio against Michigan, a No. 3 seed.

In his NCAA tournament pool, Dolezal had the Ramblers winning one game but losing in the second round. Gailes picked Loyola to advance to the Sweet 16, but not to the Final Four. Not many people did.

Except Rogers, who had Loyola going all the way to the title game, where he foresaw them losing to Kansas.

“I absolutely did pick them. Some people thought that was kind of goofy, but I saw how they worked together all season long and knew they could make some noise in the tournament,” Rogers said.

Gailes, who played collegiately from 1987-91, is a member of Loyola’s Athletics Hall of Fame, 1990s All-Decade Team and the All-Century Team. Rogers, who added a red-shirt year, was also an all-century pick.

Dolezal played a year at Nebraska, then transferred to Loyola, where he was named to the 1990s All-Decade Team after scoring over 1,000 points in his three years.

He said the Loyola teams the La Porte County trio starred for, along with Highland graduate Hunter Atkins, did well, but was never able to reach the NCAA tourney.

“We beat Purdue one year, and played Wisconsin (which featured NBA star Michael Finley) tough,” Dolezal said. “But the Midwestern Collegiate Conference was packed with Xavier, Marquette, Butler and Dayton.”

Loyola has won the NCAA tournament once, more than 50 years ago in 1963, but has been invited back to the tournament only five times since then, three of those in the 1960s and the latest in 1985, when they advanced to the Sweet 16.

Dolezal thinks the Ramblers have a great shot this weekend.“They can hang with Michigan certainly,” he said. “I think they can beat them and reach the title game, but that is where it gets tough.”

While Gailes will be in attendance at the Final Four, Rogers and and Dolezal will be cheering from afar.

“We’ll be in Chicago,” Dolezal said. “We’ll be up in the campus area watching and cheering; and I just know it will be electric up there.”

Reach Jeff Mayes at jmayes@thenewsdispatch.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @midnightdog.

NCAA NATIONAL SEMIFINALSSaturday, March 30, at San Antonio5:09 p.m. — No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 11 Loyola Chicago on TBS7:49 p.m. — No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas on TBSNATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPMonday, April 2, at San Antonio8:20 p.m. — Semifinal winners on TBS