The Loyola Academy football team that has so much talent and so little time to showcase it has found another unbeaten team to fill one of two open weeks on the schedule.
Hillcrest will be invading Hoerster Field at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 10, replacing Benet Academy, which had to back out of its scheduled appearance because of COVID-19 protocol.
The Hawks are flying high by virtue of three straight victories — 42-7 over Riverside-Brookfield, 30-24 over Lemont and 72-0 over Tinley Park.
Loyola, likewise, is going into the game with momentum after dismantling a presumably powerful South Side opponent for the third straight week of this COVID-19 delayed and abbreviated season.
This time the opponent was Brother Rice, an IHSA Class 8A semifinalist last season after losing to the Ramblers in the 2018 title game.
Playing at home, the Crusaders held the Chicago metropolitan area’s top-ranked team scoreless until 90 seconds remained in the first half but then they gradually crumbled and ultimately fell 28-7.
Earlier the Ramblers defeated IHSA Class 5A runnerup St. Rita 7-3 on the road and defending Class 7A champion Mount Carmel 35-17 at Hoerster Field.
In the Brother Rice game, senior Vaughn Pemberton put on another powerful demonstration of his running prowess, scoring the second Loyola touchdown on a 41-yard run with 94 seconds to play in the third quarter and going on a 43-yard jaunt for the final TD late in the fourth quarter.
Junior Marco Maldonado, who plays the role of Pemberton’s understudy, played the best game of his career. He opened the scoring by collaborating with quarterback JT Thomas on a 57-yard touchdown pass and scored again in the fourth quarter on a 16-yard run.
Pemberton carried 16 times for 156 yards and Maldonado 12 times for 68.
“Vaughn has been like a big brother for me,” Maldonado said. “We work together every day at practice and make each other better.
“When I’m on the bench I try to see how the linebackers are coming downfield and how the people in the secondary are reacting so I can read their pursuits and make the right cuts at the right time.”
Maldonado’s performance came as no surprise to Coach John Holecek.
“It’s nice to see him step up,” Holecek said. “He has shown so much in practice but he hasn’t had much chance in games with Vaughn being so special. Marco has quick feet and great acceleration.”
Another substitute making an impact was sophomore quarterback Jake Stearney.
Making his varsity debut, he came in to spell Thomas late in the third quarter and directed the 68-yard touchdown drive that saw Pemberton score his second touchdown.
Stearney completed both of his passes during the stint, connecting with senior tight end James Kyle on plays covering 16 and 3 yards.
“Jake has tremendous talent and hasn’t been able to show it,” Holecek said. “This week in practice JT had a sprained ankle and Jake took a lot of reps. Then, JT was OK but we wanted to get Jake in there. We have the utmost confidence in both quarterbacks.”
Defensively, Loyola shut down the Crusaders’ running attack. Brother Rice’s only significant runs came on scrambles of 64 and 25 yards by junior quarterback Jack Lausch.
Brother Rice trailed 21-0 before Lausch pegged a 6-yard pass to Dwayne Moorehead for their touchdown with 5:09 to play in the game.
Spearheading the defense was senior lineman Brandon Svets, who sacked Lausch three times.
“Svets has turned out to be the real deal,” Holecek said. “He’s going to be a monster at the next level. If we had played in the fall everyone would have been after him. Illinois offered him (a scholarship) but he had committed to Harvard. He’s a high academic kid so it’ll be a great place for him.
“All of our returning starters have played exceptionally well. (In the secondary) Marty Auer is all over the field and Artis Benjamin has been making great plays.
“If Josh Kreutz (the offensive lineman who is out for the season with a torn ACL) was playing, I don’t know how anyone could stop us with the experience and poise we have.”
The Ramblers went to the bus for the ride home thinking that they might have only one game left to play, a road game on Friday, April 23 at Marist, the team that spoiled their 2019 season by beating them in the final game of the regular season and then again in the quarterfinals of the state tournament at Hoerster Field.
Instead, coming up next on Saturday is Hillcrest, a team that on paper looks like a powerful adversary and has made it to at least the Class 5A quarterfinals in five straight seasons.
Meanwhile, the Loyola athletic department plans to continue reaching out to other area schools who lost games because of the pandemic in an attempt to fill in the Saturday, April 17 blank that remains on the abbreviated schedule.
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.