Loyola Academy senior defensive back Artist Benjamin said he spent “510 days” preparing for this game and he marked the occasion by making the game-saving play.
It was the first interception of Benjamin’s high school career, and his pick in the end zone with 70 seconds remaining preserved the Ramblers’ spine-tingling 7-3 come-from-behind victory at St. Rita in the long-awaited season opener Friday night, March 19.
“Marty Auer and I were double-teaming Kaleb Brown (the intended receiver),” Benjamin said. “We trusted each other to make that play. Kaleb was behind me. I saw the ball in the air and got the first pick of my varsity career.
“I had a countdown — I’ve been training 510 days for this.”
This was the Ramblers’ first game since their 41-27 loss to Marist in an IHSA Class 8A quarterfinal on Nov. 16, 2019, a defeat that doomed their hopes of defending the state championship that they won in 2018.
St. Rita, meanwhile, advanced to the Class 5A title game before losing to Rochester.
Both teams are expected to be championship contenders again this season. Some pre-season forecasters have Loyola ranked No. 1 overall in Illinois and St. Rita in the top 10.
For much of the season-opener, however, it seemed the Mustangs were the better team.
Led by the passing of junior quarterback Tommy Ulatowski, on the first possession of the game they drove to the Ramblers’ 1-yard line before a penalty pushed them back to the 20. Faced with a fourth-and-goal situation at the 11, they settled for Jorge Verduzco’s 28-yard field goal with 5:52 to play in the first quarter.
It wasn’t until 2 minutes 7 seconds remained in the see-saw struggle that the Ramblers’ finally surmounted that 3-0 deficit.
Taking the snap in the “Wildcat” offense that coach John Holecek often uses in clutch, short-yardage situations, Vaughn Pemberton rammed his way into the end zone from 2 yards out.
The game-winning touchdown ended a seven-play drive that started on the Mustangs’ 33 after linebacker Braden Mullen to partially blocked Verduzco’s punt.
“Yes, yes, yes — I love the Wildcat,” said the senior running back who didn’t begin practicing with the football team until he finished playing on the basketball team a week earlier. “(On the touchdown) I did a fake and then I was just one-on-one with the safety. Then, I put my shoulder down and moved my feet.”
Pemberton’s running dominated the drive but the key was a 10-yard personal foul penalty against St. Rita that put the ball on the 10-yard line.
From there Marco Maldonado carried it to the 5, Pemberton took it to the 2 and then he got the touchdown that was followed by Nate Van Zelst’s extra-point kick.
St. Rita refused to surrender.
A 67-yard pass from Ulatowski to Isaih Bragg in a third-and-12 situation sent the Mustangs to the Loyola 16.
A tenacious Rambler pass rush prompted two incompletions and a penalty sent the Mustangs back to the 30, setting the stage for Benjamin’s game-saving end zone interception.
“At the critical moments our defense stepped up,” Holecek said. “This is a special group. We played like a team, and we didn’t give up but we’ve got to get better.
“It’s a shame St. Rita had to lose because they played so well. They penetrated and they disrupted a lot on defense. Our blocking has to be a little more cohesive.”
Van Zelst’s punting was a significant factor in the Loyola success story.
Prior to the touchdown drive, the Ramblers’ most serious threat came late in the third quarter when quarterback JT Thomas connected with Aidan Brownlee, Maldonado and Perrion McClinton for completions of 15, 12 and 29 yards, respectively, to highlight a drive that took them from their own 30 to the home team’s 16-yard line.
But then Thomas’ first-down pass was intercepted by Michael Gaughan at the Loyola 2.
“I think JT is going to learn a lot from this game,” Holecek said. “He was making mistakes mentally, not taking some things he could have.
“A couple of guys who are new on defense are going to watch the films and see plays they gave up and they’ll learn.”
Having a successful pandemic-shortened season will entail offsetting a major injury—a torn anterior cruciate ligament—that the Ramblers’ best offensive lineman, 6-2, 260-pound senior Josh Kreutz, sustained in practice, ending his high school career.
The son of six-time NFL Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz had been a starter since his sophomore season and early in the current school year he committed to playing college football at the University of Illinois.
The Ramblers’ next game will be at home at 1:30 Saturday afternoon, March 27, and the opponent will be a foe that is seemingly even more formidable than St. Rita, perennial powerhouse Mount Carmel, the 2019 Class 7A state champion.
In the Sun-Times preseason rankings, Loyola is No. 1 in the state and Mount Carmel is No. 2 but other publications have the Caravan ranked No. 1.