What’s the greatest rivalry in Illinois prep sports?
It’s a question that came up earlier this fall when Loyola staged a “College Game Day”-style roundtable before its Catholic League Blue football showdown with Mount Carmel.
Specifically, the query was whether Loyola-Mount Carmel was the best rivalry going. It’s not an unreasonable premise.
The teams have played some epic games lately, including a pair that went to overtime and this year’s marathon that extended over two days thanks to a monsoon that blew through the North Shore and forced play to be suspended.
And you can’t overlook the classic Chicago dynamic of South Side vs. North Side.
Opinions were split that day, though, about the rivalry rankings. Some believe public-school showdowns trump the rest. People in Aurora who pack the gyms for West Aurora vs. East Aurora hoops would probably agree, and there’s no shortage of tradition or intensity in the Evanston-New Trier matchups.
You could also make a pretty good case for some other neighborhood matchups. It’s hard to beat either of the battles of Naperville — Central vs. North or Neuqua Valley vs. Waubonsie Valley — for energy and emotion.
Two of the best games anyone could hope to see last football season were the Neuqua-Waubonsie matchups. Two great fan bases, two great runners — Neuqua’s Joey Rhattigan, Waubonsie’s Austin Guido — and two great finishes. Neuqua won the regular-season matchup 35-34 in double-overtime at North Central College. The Wildcats also took the encore 23-20 in the Class 8A quarterfinals at home on a field goal in the closing seconds.
So yes, these are all worthy contenders to the title of Illinois’ best rivalry. But for everyone involved and a lot of other neutral observers, there’s another one that earns top honors. Call it Mount Carmel-St. Rita or just Carmel-Rita, but by any name it’s something that needs to be experienced to be properly understood.
The South Side rivals always meet in the regular season, but haven’t crossed paths in the IHSA playoffs since 2005. That changes Friday night at 7 at Gately Stadium when the Caravan and Mustangs kick off before what could be the biggest crowd of the season.
They’ll both bring in 9-1 records and dreams of playing on Thanksgiving weekend. Actually, both could do so but only one can achieve that feat in the Class 7A state title game in DeKalb. The loser will be shunted off to a different path, one leading to the Prep Bowl at Soldier Field.
The intensity of the rivalry comes from the programs’ intertwined roots on the South Side. You may be a Carmel man or a Rita man from birth like your grandpa and dad and uncles and brothers. But you also probably know guys on the other side who go to Mass at the same parish or work in the same firehouse.
And the players have grown up together, as teammates from grammar school now on opposing sidelines or vice versa.
The one thing both sides will tell you about this game is they’re not happy it comes so early in the playoffs. That’s a function of the Illinois High School Association’s decision to seed the south half of Class 7A in two eight-team quads.
With the talent on the field and the energy in the stands, this will have the feel of a later-round game. But the schedule isn’t changing. The only thing to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.