FIRST DOWN: Through three games, the Ramblers have been committed to rotating four running backs. In the team’s 24-7 win over St. Rita on Saturday at Hoerster Field, it was junior Vaughn Pemberton (pictured above) who stood out. 

Pemberton, who was on the sideline for last week’s game with a minor injury, ran 17 times for 120 yards and scored two touchdowns. He was a difference-maker in the second half with 13 carries for 110 yards. 

“Our running game was stagnant early,” Loyola head coach John Holecek said. “But we stuck with it, even when they were loading the box.”

After Loyola took a 10-7 lead on a 49-yard field goal by junior Nate Van Zelst with 1:09 left in the third quarter, the Ramblers turned to their running game to wear down the Mustangs. 

“Our offensive line did a great job,” Pemberton said. “They played with a lot of energy, and we could tell [St. Rita] got really tired.”

A running back since he started playing football, Pemberton was the one of the go-to players on Loyola’s sophomore team before he suffered a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee, which forced him to miss a majority of the season. 

At full strength, Pemberton is first on the team in both yards (173) and TDs (3) and averages 6.7 yards per carry. Although he’s athletic enough to break big runs on the outside, Pemberton earns his keep by running between the tackles. 

“I like contact, and I hope to hit somebody every play,” he said. “I prefer to run straight ahead and attack a defense. The offensive line we have makes that easy to do.”

Running behind  seniors Peter Gianaris, Christo Kelly and James Kennedy and juniors Josh Kruetz and Cooper Tamisiea, the Ramblers have rushed for 662 yards (5.1 yards per attempt) this season. Junior Marco Maldonado (23-135 yards), senior Trevor Cabanban (22-101, 2 TDs) and senior Tyler Flores (13-70, 1 TD) have shared carries with Pemberton. 

“The other day we were talking about how crazy it is that we have this many good running backs,” Pemberton said. “Any one of us could be the main guy on most teams.”

SECOND DOWN: Holecek understands how lucky he is to have a kicker like junior Nate Van Zelst. Once again, Van Zelst showed how valuable he is by scoring the go-ahead points in Saturday’s win. 

Named to MaxPreps’ national preseason All-American first team — the lone Illinois player to earn that distinction — Van Zelst is an X-factor in close games. He kicked two field goals in Loyola’s 13-3 win over Brother Rice in the Class 8A state final last season.

“We have complete confidence in him,” Holecek said. “He’s special.”

After having a 34-yard field goal attempt blocked in the second quarter, Van Zelst bounced back by kicking a career-long 49-yarder at the 1:09 mark of the third quarter. It gave the Ramblers their first lead of the game and swung the momentum in their favor. 

“We were so excited to see him make it, and that’s when we took over the game,” Pemberton said.

Added Van Zelst, “I could feel the energy change on the sideline. It’s always fun to help out.”

THIRD DOWN: On Loyola’s third series of the game Saturday, junior JT Thomas entered the game at quarterback, taking over for junior Perrion McClinton, who’s started since Week 1. 

Thomas looked sharp, leading the Ramblers down the field to St. Rita’s 17, covering 48 yards in 10 plays. The drive ended when the Mustangs blocked Loyola’s 34-yard field goal attempt. 

After St. Rita went three-and-out, Thomas returned to the field and marched the Ramblers on an 11-play possession that resulted in Pemberton’s game-tying TD on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. 

McClinton came back for the final series of the second quarter and played the entire second half. He finished 9-for-17 for 44 yards and one TD. He ran 11 times for 50 yards. Thomas went 2-for-4 for 21 yards. 

The Ramblers totaled 295 yards on offense, averaging 4.6 yards a play. For the first time this season, they didn’t turn over the ball. 

FOURTH DOWN: Winners of two in a row, the Ramblers (2-1) have a big week ahead of them as they prepare for the Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference Blue opener against Mount Carmel on the road. There’s extra juice for this one, considering the Caravan (3-0) welcome Loyola to the brand-new Barda-Dowling Stadium at Carey Field, the first on-campus facility in Mount Carmel’s 96-year history.  

“We know the atmosphere is going to be awesome,” Loyola senior safety Daniel O’Flaherty said. “It’s going to be a long week of practice, and we know we have to step up our game to beat them.”

Photo credit: Geoff Scott