CHICAGO – The frustration was simmering on the Loyola sideline.
All game long, its offense could do nothing Friday night at St. Rita. It didn’t reach the red zone in the first half. It was slow going in the run game – two yards here, three yards there. And the pass game wasn’t clicking either.
But with about six minutes remaining in the game, Loyola’s Braden Mullen gave the Ramblers the spark they needed when he tipped a St. Rita punt. Loyola took over at the St. Rita 33-yard line, easily its best field position of the night, and fed the ball to running back Vaughn Pemberton.
Pemberton pushed the Ramblers down field and scored a two-yard touchdown run with 2:07 remaining to give Loyola its first lead in a 7-3 win over St. Rita in a CCL/ESCC crossover game.
“I just put my shoulder down and moved my legs,” Pemberton said.
It was a remarkable win for Loyola, considering it trailed St. Rita nearly the entire game. For most of the night, St. Rita had the more dynamic offense, but the Mustangs couldn’t seem to finish off a drive with a touchdown.
Kicker Jorge Verduzco gave St. Rita a 3-0 lead with a 28-yard field goal midway through the first quarter. The game didn’t see another score until Pemberton’s touchdown in the waning minutes.
Loyola, which is ranked No. 2 in Class 8A in the Friday Night Drive coaches poll, returned a ton of starters from 2019, but only one on the offensive line. Both teams were shaking off some rust after 16 months without IHSA football.
“We just needed to get in our rhythm,” Pemberton said. “We needed to get in that groove. But we got it done in the second half, so I’m proud of the team, I’m proud of the O-line.”
Loyola coach John Holecek credited the St. Rita defensive front. The Mustangs, who are the No. 1-ranked team in the Class 5A coaches poll, disrupted things up the middle. Pemberton finished with 90 yards on 22 carries, but they didn’t come easy against the St. Rita defense.
“I’m just excited for these guys that came out and battled,” Holecek said. “It’s a shame that Rita played so well and someone had to lose.”
St. Rita linebacker Michael Gaughan was all over the field for the Mustangs defense. He pulled in a key interception in the third quarter. Loyola quarterback JT Thomas had just connected with receiver Perrion McClinton for a 29-yard pass, which set Loyola up at the 16-yard line.
On the next play, Thomas looked for his tight end up the middle, but Gaughan made a leaping interception. The defensive effort from St. Rita was superb, it just wasn’t enough.
“I’ve got no words,” Gaughan said. “It’s tough. I would love to play these guys one more time. We gave it our all.”
Pemberton’s fourth-quarter touchdown gave Loyola its first lead, but it didn’t seal the win. St. Rita quarterback Tommy Ulatowski found receiver Isaiah Bragg for a 67-yard pass deep into Loyola territory in the final minutes.
But the drive stalled and an intentional grounding penalty put the Mustangs in fourth-and-long. Loyola defensive back Artist Benjamin intercepted Ulatowski’s last-chance throw toward the end zone.
“I haven’t had a pick my whole varsity career,” Benjamin said. “I saw it and said, ‘I’ve got to go get it.’”