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Previewing the IHSA state football title games

A look at the six games involving local teams.

St. Rita wide receiver Kaleb Brown (3) dives to score a touchdown against Prospect.
St. Rita wide receiver Kaleb Brown (3) dives to score a touchdown against Prospect.
Quinn Harris/For the Sun-Times

St. Rita wide receiver/running back Kaleb Brown was missed this season. Watching high-level talents is one of the joys of high school sports.

The Ohio State recruit returned a couple of weeks ago. The instant impact he made only underscored what a game-changing force he is.

Will Brown have an AJ Henning-like performance and lead the Mustangs to the

Class 7A state title?

“I’m glad they held it down without me, and now we can do it together, as a team,” Brown said.

Brown injured his left leg early in the first game of the season. He says he had some doubts about returning this season but decided to do it for his teammates.

“This is for my team,” Brown said. “They motivated me. I took care of myself and did what I had to do off the field to get back on the field.”

St. Rita (11-2) will face Wheaton North (12-1) in the title game at 4 p.m. Saturday.

While Brown was out, the Mustangs developed an effective running game behind two sophomores. DJ Stewart is a strong, powerful back, and Ethan Middleton is a speedster. Both are averaging more than six yards a carry.

St. Rita’s defense has been excellent since mid-October. Defensive back Johnny Schmitt leads the Mustangs in tackles (77) and interceptions (seven).

Wheaton North, which knocked off Brother Rice in the semis, will pose a formidable challenge.

Holy Cross recruit Mark Forcucci has thrown for 22 touchdowns with only three interceptions. The Falcons also have persevered through an injury. Junior Luke Beedle and sophomore Walker Owens stepped in during the playoffs when running back Brayton Maske went down.

“We don’t have guys with flashy stats defensively, but across the board, it is a solid group,” Wheaton North coach Joe Wardynski said. “We had to score against Brother Rice, and the week before we won 10-3 at Willowbrook, so we are capable of winning with different styles.”

Class 8A: Lockport (12-1) vs. Maine South (12-1), 7 p.m. Saturday

Can the Porters’ defensive line, which Loyola coach John Holecek and Hawks coach Dave Inserra say is the best in the state, stop Maine South running back Mike Sajenko?

He has scored 30 touchdowns and is averaging seven yards a carry. Sajenko has scored a remarkable 14 touchdowns in the playoffs.

Lockport’s only loss came when quarterback Hayden Timosciek was injured. He has thrown for 2,007 yards in 12 games, with 23 touchdown passes and one interception.

Class 6A: Cary-Grove (13-0) vs. East St. Louis (11-2), 1 p.m. Saturday

Can the Trojans possibly beat mighty East St. Louis? The Flyers’ two losses are to nationally ranked out-of-state teams. Receiver Luther Burden, the state’s top senior and one of seven major-college prospects on the team, has scored 32 touchdowns.

Expect Cary-Grove to give East St. Louis more of a battle than many expect. The Trojans average nine yards a carry.

Class 5A: Fenwick (11-2) vs. Kankakee (13-0), 10 a.m. Saturday

Neither school has won a state championship, and both communities are tremendously excited about the trip to DeKalb.

Expect a lot of offense in this one. Fenwick quarterback Kaden Cobb, a Ball State recruit, is blessed with a very talented receiving corps. Max Reese, Eian Pugh and Bryan Hunt can make big plays.

The Kays didn’t play the strongest regular-season schedule but have taken care of business in the playoffs.

“These kids are so close; they love each other,” Kankakee coach Derek Hart said. “They spend so much time together outside of football that they make a lot of sacrifices for each other. They’ve set high standards.”

Class 4A: Joliet Catholic (13-0) vs. Sacred-Heart Griffin (12-1), 7 p.m. Friday

The Hilltoppers weren’t challenged in the playoffs until last week against Richmond-Burton, and they still won that game 35-18.

Illinois recruit Jordan Anderson is a powerful and fast wrecking ball averaging 10 yards a carry. Quarterback Aidan Voss is a crafty leader, and it’s possible that Joliet Catholic is the best team in the state.

So it’s a lot to expect any Class 4A team to hang with the Hilltoppers. But Cyclones coach Ken Leonard is a legend, and his team can score. Quarterback Ty Lott has thrown for 2,992 yards with 42 touchdown passes and two interceptions.

Class 2A: Wilmington (13-0) vs. Nashville (12-1), 1 p.m. Friday

The Wildcats only have attempted 13 passes all season, so what’s coming is no secret. Colin James and Jacob Friddle have both rushed for 18 touchdowns and more than 1,300 yards.

Nashville has allowed an average of 25 points in its four playoff games, so stopping Wilmington might be too much of a challenge.