St. Rita tops Prospect, advances to second straight state title game
By Steve Millar
After entering the season with huge expectations, St. Rita lost two of its first three games and star senior running back/receiver Kaleb Brown to injury.
While some may have written the Mustangs off, they still believed they had a team that could win a state championship.
“We’ve been able to stick together all year,” senior defensive end Jake Polselli said. “The adversity that we’ve faced these last three years, sticking together has been the main thing.
“We had an unreal group (in the spring). We had arguably the best team in the state.”
Now, St. Rita is one win away from showing it’s the best team in Class 7A.
The host Mustangs rolled to a 42-20 win over Prospect in the semifinals on Nov. 20.
St. Rita (11-2) will take on Wheaton North (12-1) in the state championship game at 4 p.m. Saturday at Huskie Stadium at Northern Illinois University.
It will be the second straight title-game appearance for the Mustangs, who lost to Rochester in the 2019 5A championship game. St. Rita will be looking for its first state title since 2006.
“It’s a credit to our guys, especially after how we started,” St. Rita coach Todd Kuska said. “We were a top-ranked team and all of a sudden, it was like, ‘What happened to St. Rita?’ Well, hey, we’re going to the state championship game.
“Things happened. We regrouped. We’ve played together. Credit to our seniors.”
Brown, an Ohio State recruit, injured his left leg in the first quarter of the season-opening loss to Mount Carmel and missed the rest of the regular season before returning for the second round of the playoffs.
He ran for two touchdowns — a 17-yarder and an 11-yarder — in the first half Saturday night as St. Rita opened up a 35-7 lead before halftime
“I’m 100%,” Brown said. “I’m good. I’m back and better and glad to be back on the field. To end my senior year the right way, it’s unreal.”
While Brown was making big plays offensively, the St. Rita defense was doing its part against Prospect (10-3), as well, scoring a pair of defensive touchdowns in the first half.
Junior Johnny Schmitt returned an interception 7 yards for a TD in the first quarter and senior Jake Polselli took a pick back 22 yards to the end zone in the second quarter.
“I worked really hard in the offseason to make plays in these types of games,” Schmitt said. “It’s great to be out here and I’m so happy to be part of this team.”
Polselli added a second interception in the second half.
“That was great for Jake,” Kuska said. “He’s a senior captain and he came up with big plays. All our guys played hard.”
Polselli’s touchdown made it 28-7 St. Rita with 5:50 seconds left in the second quarter and sophomore running back DJ Stewart capped the dominant half by scoring on a 11-yard touchdown run with one minute left.
Stewart added a 3-yard touchdown run in the second half and finished with 87 yards on 14 carries.
Fellow sophomore Ethan Middleton added 106 yards on just nine carries.
Stewart and Middleton had their roles expand after Brown’s injury and an injury to senior running back Kyle Clayton.
“Without me getting hurt, a lot of that wouldn’t have happened,” Brown said. “It’s definitely a blessing in disguise. They got their mojo going. I like to see my team win. I love it. We’re winning and getting better.
“I’m glad they held it down without me, and now I’m back so I’m glad we can all do it together as a team.”
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