One decade ago, Gary DeCesare took over a St. Rita basketball program that had won three regional titles in school history.
After going 43-34 in his first three seasons building the program, DeCesare’s Mustangs averaged 20 wins a year while ramping up the schedule over the next seven years. St. Rita also won four regional championships in that same span.
In addition, the program raised its profile with bigger-named players. St. Rita churned out the likes of Charles Matthews, who signed with Kentucky and eventually starred at Michigan, and Tony Hicks, who scored over 1,000 points in just three seasons at Penn before transferring to Louisville.
What is transpiring at St. Rita right now under second-year coach Roshawn Russell may be an extension of DeCesare propping up St. Rita basketball over the past decade, but it’s also completely unseen in the history of the program.
The abundance of talent that permeates through the program right now is eye-opening. The young talent in place at St. Rita is enough to make even a Chicago Public League power jealous.
Said one prominent city coach recently, “St. Rita cleaned up in that freshman class.”
The rise in talent at Rita is reminiscent of another Catholic League program, Fenwick, back in the mid-1990s. That’s when a freshman class, headed by superstar Corey Maggette and one that also included future Division I players in Mark Treadwell and Chris Williams, provided a sudden jolt to the Friars program.
Now Russell, who worked five years under DeCesare and is a respected and humble coach, has the keys to his own up-and-coming program. But he also is quick to say how much he appreciates the opportunity he was given before even turning 30 years old.
“First, I am fortunate to work at a place like St. Rita,” said Russell, who starred at St. Rita as a prep player and is a 2008 graduate.
Russell deflects attention and doesn’t budge when seeking an added sound bite to pump up the program even more. You throw around superlatives about his up-and-coming program and he responds like a savvy veteran coach. He does truly believe, however, in the place where he works.
“The place really sells itself,” Russell says of St. Rita. “The spirituality there, the academics and then they have been so competitive athletically. It’s a premier Catholic school where they are shaping men and helping them become productive men in society. There is a big picture at St. Rita and that I think resonates with families.”
While admitting it’s the most young talent he’s seen in the program in his six years coaching at 79th and Western, Russell repeatedly talks about the process. He looks back at his experience as a Division III college basketball assistant coach, specifically working for head coach Steve Schafer at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, as a model he will follow.
Schafer, who was just named the new head coach at Division III power Augustana this past summer, spearheaded a massive rebuild at little-known Fontbonne nine years ago. Russell said he learned a great deal about laying the foundation of a program from Schaefer.
In three years coaching at Fontbonne, including two under Schafer, Russell was part of a program that went from a four-win team to one win away from reaching the Division III NCAA Tournament in a matter of three seasons.
“I just remember the process he had in building a program, putting the work in to do it and, most importantly, doing it the right way,” said Russell of his time working for Schaefer. “I have taken a lot from what he does as a coach.”
And Schaefer had his eye on Russell for a long time. He first recruited Russell to North Park and then coached him as a player when Schaefer was an assistant coach at the Division III school in Chicago. He later brought him to Fontbonne as a graduate assistant coach.
“He does an unbelievable job of connecting with players,” said Schaefer. “He works his tail off, has no ego and is humble. He showed the make-up to one day be a great coach if that was the road he chose.”
Russell is now a head coach, leading a program that is clearly on the short list of ascending programs in the Chicago area.
“I am more than excited, but we will take some lumps,” Russell cautioned. “I want to embrace the process. Everything in our society today is quick and fast. People want things instantly. That’s not going to be the case. You can’t rush it. There won’t be short cuts. We have to let the work lead to success.”
How quickly the success materializes remains to be seen. Russell did win 21 games last season in his first year on the job. Senior guard Christian Henry is a key returner from that team. But the Mustangs will be very young with a promising sophomore class and the heavily hyped freshmen group.
In addition to the talent, Russell’s program is loaded with difference-making size and length, the type that resembles a college program more than one in the Chicago Catholic League.
Kaiden Space, a smooth, heady guard, is among the better shooters in the Class of 2023. Both Space and 6-7, 225-pound Solomon Mosley both gained varsity experience a year ago as freshmen. Darrien Baker is a skilled 6-7 sophomore who missed last season with an injury but has Division I potential, while Evan Jackson is a still blooming 6-6 sophomore with a high ceiling.
Then there is the ballyhooed freshman class, a group with four players who already have picked up Division I scholarship offers. The headliners are a pair of talented big men –– 6-8 James Brown, a polished-for-his-age 6-8 forward, and a still-growing, high-motored 6-6 Morez Johnson. They are arguably the top two prospects in the Class of 2024 in Illinois.
Josh Pickett is a 6-3 guard with the chance in his own right to be special, while Jaiden Reyna is an advanced point guard for being just a freshman.
Russell has high hopes. But he also knows, understands and continues to preach that there will be a learning curve.
“We want our young players to learn, learn to play together, to sacrifice and get better every day,” said Russell. “If we are getting better, that’s going to be success. But if this group does those things –– buys into what we are trying to do as a program, stay together, build a bond with one another –– then there will be a chance for them to do something special down the road. But there is a lot of work to be done. The potential is there to be the very best we’ve had here, but there is a long, long way to go.”