By Maddie Lee
Mount Carmel had just tied the game 7-7 when Loyola Academy kick returner Jonah Isaac caught the ball at the edge of the end zone. He saw his hole open up. He darted through it. He flew.
“It was unreal,” said Isaac.
With less than two minutes left in the first half, the senior did it again. After Mount Carmel pulled within a touchdown of Loyola, Isaac scored on a 97-yard kick return. Loyola led 28-14 at halftime en route to a 49-21 home victory Saturday. The Ramblers finished the conference season undefeated.
“It was huge,” Loyola coach John Holecek said of the TD returns. “To answer like that, it’s so disheartening for the other teams. And that’s real motivation for us.”
Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti said he’d never seen the Caravan give up two kick returns for touchdowns in one game.
“That’s the first time in 32 years that’s ever happened,” he said. “Every time we do something good, they come back and do something better.”
With the game essentially decided before the fourth quarter, Loyola fans were left counting down the yards before senior Dara Laja would surpass the school record of 2,110 career rushing yards, set byPat Naughton, Loyola’s current receivers coach, in 1995.
He broke the record on a nine-yard touchdown carry, with just over four minutes left in the game, which brought him to 2,112 career rushing yards.
The Loyola fans jumped to their feet chanting his name.
“It felt amazing,” Laja said. His voice shook ever so slightly. “It was very emotional for me. It definitely means a lot.”
On the other side, Mount Carmel lost five fumbles and never led the game.
Loyola clinched the Catholic Blue Conference title (9-0, 4-0), and is seeded first in the state tournament. They have been Catholic Blue champions five times, all since 2010, and have one state title.
The Caravan has won the Catholic Blue Conference eight times since its formation in 1996. They won the state championship in 2012 and 2013, and holds 12 state titles.
Mount Carmel (7-2, 2-2) also will advance to the state tournament and will host Glenbard North in the first round of Class 7A playoffs. Loyola (Class 8A) will host West Aurora. Both teams play at noon Oct. 31.
Lenti said, “I’m glad they’re in 8A and we’ll be in 7A.”