When Loyola Academy’s Vaughn Pemberton signed his letter of intent to play at Ball State his coach, John Holecek, called him “a power running back with breakaway speed — a matchup nightmare.”
Pemberton was all of that and more on Saturday, March 27, in the Ramblers’ home opener against Mount Carmel.
He powered across the goal line from 2 yards out in the first and third quarters and broke away for a 28-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter in leading the Ramblers to a decisive 35-17 victory over defending IHSA Class 7A champion Mount Carmel.
For the afternoon, Pemberton amassed 201 total yards — 135 ground yards in 23 carries and, for good measure, 66 receiving yards on four catches.
Pemberton played down his accomplishments.
“The offensive line did most of the work,” he said. “Give the offensive line credit.
“Us seniors knew we had to come out strong and that’s what we did. Freshman year they beat us; sophomore year they beat us; last year (the 2019 season) they beat us. They were dancing on the field.
“No, no, no. Not today.”
The Caravan came to Hoerster Field ranked No. 1 in the metropolitan area by MaxPreps after defeating Montini 34-21, while the Ramblers were ranked No. 3 (behind undefeated Nazareth Academy) after coming from behind to edge St. Rita 7-3 when Pemberton rammed across the goal line from 2 yards out with 2 minutes 7 seconds remaining.
The Chicago Sun-Times has those rankings flipped, with Loyola at 1 and Mount Carmel 2.
“Rita has a heck of a team,” Holecek said. “I don’t know if anyone is going to touch them (the rest of this pandemic-abbreviated season). They’re a special team and that’s the difference (between the score of that game and the Mount Carmel contest).
“Mount Carmel is a very, very good team. They have so many athletes, so many disrupters in the front line. This week we corrected a lot of mistakes. Still, obviously we made some stupid mistakes, we took some (costly) penalties and I didn’t call a great game.”
The home opener began the same way the game at St. Rita did. The Caravan took the opening kickoff and drove to the Loyola 26 before being faced with a fourth-and-six situation and settling for Julian Patino’s 43-yard field goal.
But this time the Ramblers immediately answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive that ended with Pemberton’s first touchdown.
The big play on the road to the end zone was a 31-yard pass from JT Thomas to tight end James Kyle.
In the second quarter Loyola extended its lead to 21-3 on Marty Auer’s 39-yard interception return and junior Roger Simon’s 87-yard reception of a pass from Thomas.
“Marty has natural instincts as an athlete,” Holecek said. “He hasn’t committed yet but some college will be very happy to have him.”
According to Auer, “The coaches prepared me well, the scout team gave me great looks all week and I made the play (for the TD-producing interception). They have good receivers. (Fellow defensive back) Artist Benjamin did a good job of helping lock them down.
“This was our No. 1 game this season, our state championship.”
Thomas saw it the same way.
“We wanted this game more than any game,” he said. “We knew if we jumped on them early it would be something they weren’t used to. We did that but we made a couple of mistakes and they didn’t fold. But we did not lose control. We weren’t going to let it get away.”
Simon’s touchdown catch came on his first reception as a member of the varsity squad.
“When I came out and ran across the field JT saw me and threw a great pass,” he said. “I caught it, turned upfield and had an open field. I tried a few moves and just ran (faking out a defender twice inside the 10-yard line).”
It seemed the Ramblers were on the verge of turning the game into a rout when they forced Mount Carmel to punt from its own 12-yard line on the Caravan’s next possession.
But Loyola fumbled the towering punt, the visitors recovered at their own 48 and two plays later quarterback Justin Lynch ran 40 yards for a touchdown with 1:48 to play in the half.
Mount Carmel then got tough on defense, forcing Loyola to punt in a fourth-and-9 situation. On the second play from scrimmage Kyheim Schooler slipped behind the Loyola secondary without being detected, pulled down a pass from Lynch and took the ball to the end zone to complete a 48-year touchdown play. P
Patino’s second extra point kick of the quarter slashed Loyola’s lead to 21-17 with 34 seconds remaining in the half.
“Completely blown coverage,” Holecek lamented in critiquing Schooler’s touchdown.
The Ramblers got their act back together at the start of the third quarter and went on an 80-yard TD drive climaxed by another 2-yard run by Pemberton after he caught a 36-yard pass from Thomas.
Mount Carmel counterattacked and drove to the Loyola 2 before being pushed back to the 7 because of a delay-of-game penalty in a fourth-and-goal situation with 4.5 left in the quarter.
Coach Jordan Lynch decided to send in Patino to attempt a 25-yard field goal that would have pulled the Caravan within eight points, but the kick was wide.
Early in the fourth quarter Thomas fumbled when he was sacked while attempting to pass and Mount Carmel recovered at midfield.
The Ramblers responded by applying intense defensive pressure and took over on downs at their own 44.
From there Pemberton carried the ball eight straight times in personally taking it to the end zone. Then, Nate Van Zelst’s fourth extra point put the finishing touches on the triumph.
Overshadowed by Pemberton’s performance was an impressive passing display by Thomas. The Denison-bound quarterback connected on 12 of his 15 passes for 222 yards. Simon complemented his 87-yard TD reception with two other catches and wound up with 103 receiving yards.
In contrast to Thomas, Lynch had a hard time finding receivers with regularity. He finished with 8 completions in 17 attempts for 121 yards but, in addition to the TD-producing interception by Auer the Ramblers got another pick from Benjamin.
Lynch often had to scramble and his 14 carries netted him 67 yards after 14 yards were subtracted by losses.
Kenenna Odeluga was the Caravan’s most effective runner with 85 yards in 21 rushes.
Although Mount Carmel managed to net 168 yards rushing to 162 for Loyola, the significant disparity in passing yardage was reflected in the outcome.
“Now you know what you can do on offense and what you can do on defense,” Holecek told the Ramblers after the game. “You pulled it out and you made a lot of big plays.”
Next up for the Ramblers is another traditionally strong South Side arch-rival, Brother Rice, on the road Thursday afternoon, April 1.
A Class 8A semi-finalist last season, the Crusaders will play their first home game after winning 28-7 at Providence Catholic and losing 20-16 at Marist.
Neil Milbert was a staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 40 years, covering college (Northwestern, Illinois, UIC, Loyola) and professional (Chicago Blackhawks, Bulls, horse racing, more) sports during that time. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on a Tribune travel investigation and has covered Loyola Academy football since 2011.