By Ken Lay
Mark Pemberton made a return to Catholic High School Thursday night. His Rhea County team had a tough night and a lopsided loss, but that didn’t make a stop at Blaine Stadium.
“I have some fond memories of this place,” said Pemberton, who coached the Irish from 2002-08. “I had a great run here and before the game, I had several of my former players come and see me and that was great.
“I had a great run here. We appeared in two state championship games and we won one of them. Those memories will always be special. I have some great memories here and I will cherish them.”
Things started well offensively for the Golden Eagles against Catholic Thursday as Rhea County moved the ball well on its first possession only to be turned away when the Irish took over on downs at its on 38-yard line.
Trouble was, the Golden Eagles were already trailing 7-0 by the time they got the ball in this Region 4-5A tilt because the Irish (4-3 overall, 2-0 in the region) scored on their first possession when they took the opening kickoff and marched 57 yards on just four plays. Catholic scored when Jack Sompayrac connected with DaShon Bussell on a 6-yard touchdown pass.
Catholic, which scored on its first seven possessions and came away with a seemingly lopsided 49-24 regional victory, had trouble shutting down a potent Rhea County rushing attack that produced 300 yards. But the Irish surrendered only two touchdowns on defense. The first came on a 1-yard run by Brandon Hunt early in the second stanza and made the score 14-7.
Rhea County never led in the game. The Irish gashed the Golden Eagles (3-4, 2-1), but Pemberton, who led the Irish an undefeated 15-0 record and Class AAA State Championship in 2008, said that there was plenty to be positive about.
“We did some good things offensively,” said Pemberton, who left Catholic to take a job in Georgia following the 2008 campaign. “They really couldn’t stop us.
“But they made some big plays and the one that really hurt us was that [90-yard] kickoff return [for a touchdown] before the end of the [first] half.”
That TD made it 28-10 and was scored by Bussell after the Golden Eagles pulled to within 11 points on a field goal by Haden Frashier.
Rhea County would, however, return the favor when Aulbry Smith would return the second-half kickoff for a touchdown to make it 28-17.
“We got back into it a little bit with that play,” Pemberton said. “Our kids really kept battling and we’re continuing to get better.”
Pemberton, who played on a state championship team in Rockwood in 1976, returned to his alma mater to coach the Tigers a decade later. From there, he went to Cumberland County before landing at Catholic in 2002.
With the Irish, he built a constant contender. He guided Catholic to the Division II-A semifinals during his first season. Catholic made the state championship game a year later.
He left Catholic on top and hopes to make a return trip to Blaine Stadium for the Class 5A during the playoffs. And he said that the Golden Eagles plan on winning the game if and when they roll back through Knoxville.
“Our goal is to come back here and play them in the playoffs,” Pemberton said. “And I really think that we can beat those guys.”
Pemberton is in his fifth season at Rhea County. The Golden Eagles have reached the playoffs in each of his first four campaigns.
He left Georgia after one season and returned to the Volunteer State to lead Macon County to new heights. He spent a season at Brentwood High before taking over Rhea County’s program.