Sterling, one of the recent powers in the Class 5A postseason, will welcome to town on Saturday a team that hasn’t been in the Class 5A playoffs in years.
Chicago St. Rita has been making long postseason runs in Class 7A recently.
The Mustangs last were in the Class 5A playoffs in 2000, and have been Class 7A nearly every year since, winning the state title in that class in 2006 and reaching the quarterfinals in 2017 before losing to Lake Zurich.
St. Rita missed the playoffs in 2018 after a winless campaign in the Chicago Catholic Blue, but won the schools’ ninth Prep Bowl with a 56-6 win over Chicago Taft.
This season, in the newly reconfigured CCL/ESCC Green, the Mustangs went 2-1 in conference games to finish third in the four-team division with a 6-3 record overall in the regular season.
“Their league, and even in their nonconference games, they’ve seen a lot of really good teams up to this point,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “They’re going to be battle-tested, and I think just looking at their schedule, they continued to improve throughout the season.”
The Mustangs opened the season 1-3, but that came with a tough stretch of games against Joliet Catholic, Richards, Loyola and Montini, all of whom made the playoffs.
“We went through a lot of battles and lost three of our first four, but we had a chance to win all of them,” St. Rita coach Todd Kuska said. “It taught us some lessons. Everything has to have a lesson. The kids have rallied around and played a lot better of late.”
Since then, the St. Rita defense has clamped down, allowing a total of 47 points in six games, all wins. The Mustangs beat Woodstock Marian, New Lenox Providence, Chicago Heights Marian, Lisle Benet, Niles Notre Dame and, in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs, Glenbard South.
The Mustangs beat Chicago Heights Marian 55-7 in Week 7, the team that Sterling just beat 56-14 to open the playoffs.
“I think our guys started to rally around,” Kuska said. “We had a lot of new starters at the beginning of the year, and it took some time to get their feet under them. We’re not the biggest group, but we’re a physical group.”
That defense is dominated by a pair of linebackers. Michael Gaughan has 62 solo tackles, three sacks and 16 tackles for a loss this year, while Tramon Lias adds 67 total tackles.
“They get right on top of you,” Schlemmer said. “Their defensive ends are fast. They’re like linebacker-type of kids. They get off the ball, their pass rush is really good. They’re really good against the run game. The linebackers, you can tell how well-coached they are. The linebackers get their read and they go.”
Sterling lineman Aidan Munoz-Ripley said the Warriors knowing their responsibilities and everyone doing their job will be key to getting the offense moving against the Mustangs.
“Making sure the offense is running as one unit, not separate guys,” he said. “It starts with guys on scout team, people who have been pushing us all year, like our sophomores.”
Offensively, the Mustangs average 31.5 points per game, with a lot of that production coming from running back Kaleb Brown, whose 170 carries for 1,438 yards have attracted the attention of multiple Division I colleges.
“They just put him everywhere. He can do everything,” Sterling linebacker Nick Simester said.
Brown has 21 rushing touchdowns on the year, as well as 15 receptions for 246 yards and two more scores.
“To say you’re going to totally shut down a kid like that is really tough to do,” Schlemmer said. “Our kids, if we get in the right spots, we feel really confident with our kids to be able to make plays, and they have to.”
Postseason football is nothing new to this group of Warriors, with back-to-back semifinal trips, so for Sterling players at practice leading up to Week 11, it’s another day at the office.
“We’re really focused. We’re locked in,” Simester said. “We’re really ready to play these guys.”
And the Mustangs are expecting a tough game when they make the trip west on Saturday.
“They’re a big team, they’re big up front, they’re a physical group, they’re a good football team,” Kuska said. “They run hard, they play hard. We’re expecting a hard-nosed football game.”
5A playoffs, second round
St. Rita at Sterling
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Roscoe Eades Stadium
Radio: 105.5 FM