Most high school football players in Illinois have never competed in a playoff game — the current reality, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that isn’t the case at St. Rita. The top-ranked Mustangs have three players back who played in the Class 5A title game in 2019: star running back Kaleb Brown, quarterback Tommy Ulatowski and offensive lineman Valen Erickson.
Brown is the state’s top player, an Ohio State recruit and a running back/receiver with devastating speed. He has been a headline-grabber for the last three seasons, but this year will be different. Area fans and Bucknuts — Ohio State football fans — will be watching his every move this season. He’s ready.
“I’m looking forward to all of it, even the pressure,” Brown said. “I know a lot of people will be after me. I’m ready. I’m going to play smart.”
The 5-11, 177-pound senior has scored touchdowns as a running back, receiver, quarterback, punt returner and kick returner so far in his career.
“Grabbing a pick for a touchdown is all that is left,” St. Rita coach Todd Kuska said. “That’s not in the plans just yet.”
The Mustangs return about seven starters on both offense and defense and have added several key transfers this year, including running back Kyle Clayton from Phillips.
“Rankings are great for PR,” Kuska said. “But if your kids have the right mentality, it doesn’t matter where you are ranked. And I believe our kids have that mentality.”
Said Brown: “It’s our job to come on the field and show that we are No. 1. Not everyone will see us that way now. It’s up to us to go out and execute.”
St. Rita was the only team to give Loyola a challenge in the abbreviated spring season. The Mustangs lost 7-3, and it’s still on Brown’s mind.
“Honestly, this year will be a failure if we don’t win state,” he said. “I want it bad. Real bad. And Loyola. I want to beat them. I haven’t done that in high school, so I want to accomplish that.”
St. Rita likely will be a Class 7A team. The Mustangs have Loyola circled on their schedule in Week 3.
“We have a chip on our shoulder this year,” Ulatowski said. “After three years on varsity, we feel like we are the best at all times out there.”
The entire offensive line returns, led by Erickson (a Nebraska recruit), Roco Velenti, Logan Blake and Collin Gerger.
Kuska is expecting big things from senior wide receiver EJ Nwagwu.
“He’s a track star,” Kuska said. “Last year, we had three [Division I] receivers, and it was tough to crack the lineup. He’ll be a big target for Tommy.”
Linebacker/defensive lineman Djabril McNabb, who had seven sacks in the spring, will lead the defense.
“You should expect us to be flying and make every tackle,” McNabb said. “We’re short, but we fly to the ball. All 11 men. Speed kills.”
The defensive backfield should be a strength as well. Starters Liam Bartos, BJ Hall and Jake Lehtinen are back. Senior Jake Polselli leads an experienced defensive line.
Everything is in place for a historic season at 77th and Western. And the Mustangs will find out who they are very, very quickly.
“The schedule starts out really loaded,” Kuska said. “The first three games are like playing in the Big Ten. Mount Carmel, then we go play a nationally ranked team in Kentucky, and then Loyola.”
ST. RITA FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Aug. 27 vs. Mount Carmel
Sept. 3 at Louisville Trinity, Ky.
Sept. 11 at Loyola
Sept. 17 vs. Benet
Sept. 24 vs. St. Patrick
Oct. 1 vs. Nazareth
Oct. 8 at Marian Central
Oct. 15 vs. Providence
Oct. 22 at Notre Dame