There will be no playoffs in this pandemic-shortened season, but it might feel otherwise to Loyola.
The No. 1 Ramblers are navigating their way through the state’s toughest schedule — six straight ranked opponents — with matchups materializing only days in advance against opponents they’ve rarely seen, if ever.
Loyola passed another test in an unusual Friday afternoon home game, shutting out No. 25 Phillips 30-0 behind another dominating performance from running back Vaughn Pemberton and the defense.
Playing only every other series, Pemberton nonetheless piled up more than 100 yards of total offense: 10 carries for 92 yards and a touchdown, and one catch for 11 yards.
Aidan Brownlee scored on an end-around, and quarterbacks JT Thomas and Jake Stearney each threw a touchdown pass for Loyola (5-0).
Phillips and Hillcrest were last-minute schedule additions when the Ramblers’ original week four and five opponents were unavailable. Had they not stepped in, Loyola would have had three weeks off before playing Marist in the regular-season and CCL/ESCC Blue finale.
“When we got Phillips scheduled, we were all really happy,” Pemberton said. “I got the Hudl message from coach (John) Holecek when I was in my bed. I was like, ‘Oh! I’m playing a game.’”
There was a bittersweet aspect to the game, Pemberton said. Besides being the seniors’ last home game, it came days after tight end James Kyle announced on Twitter his football career was over because of health issues.
“We don’t take any of these for granted,” said Pemberton, who like his teammates wrote Kyle’s uniform number (81) on his wrist.
Holecek didn’t take playing for granted either.
“Very nice of Hillcrest and (Phillips coach) Troy (McAllister) to pick us up,” he said, “Both (coaches) said, ‘This helps our program.’
“What was I going to do, take two weeks off to get ready for my week six (game)?”
Loyola goes up 14-0 on a 16-yard TD run by Vaughn Pemberton pic.twitter.com/OpSrTBGsjh— Michael O'Brien (@michaelsobrien) April 16, 2021
Loyola’s defense was paced by linebacker Braden Mullen, who had an interception and a sack, and lineman Brandon Svets, who had two sacks.
The Ramblers’ edge in experience and preparation showed against Phillips (2-1).
“I feel bad for these guys because they just got started,” Holecek said of the Wildcats. “CPS tied their hands completely. We had 20 (contact days) in the summer, 20 in the fall and then starting in January a little bit. We can do a lot more than these guys can do.”
That’s the goal every time the Ramblers step on the field in this six-game season, according to defensive back Marty Auer.
“We think we’re the best team in the state,” he said. “We have to prove it one more week.”
The Ramblers couldn’t look past anyone given their loaded schedule. But it’s safe to say the finale at Marist always was in the back of their minds.
“This team beat us at home twice last (season) so we have something to prove,” Auer said. “Yeah, it is our Super Bowl.”