St. Rita implosion unlike anything we’ve seen before

What’s going on at St. Rita? How did a burgeoning program with what appeared to be an unlimited ceiling at the high school level dissolve overnight?

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Former St. Rita coach Roshawn Russell watches as the Mustangs play Joliet West.

Former St. Rita coach Roshawn Russell watches as the Mustangs play Joliet West.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

Just six months ago St. Rita was the preseason No. 2 ranked team in the Super 25 rankings, boasting three juniors all committed to high-major programs and one of the top sophomores in the state.

All eyes were on a program set to take a major step and make headlines in 2022-23. St. Rita was set for a two-year window in which they were set to play in high-profile events and contend for state championships.

Today the program is a shell of itself.

James Brown, a much-talked-about young eighth-grader three years ago, came to St. Rita and quickly emerged as a high-major prospect. He committed to North Carolina in December, played out his junior year and then announced he was heading to Link Academy, a prep school in Missouri, for his senior year.

Super sophomore Melvin Bell, who missed half the season recuperating from a leg injury, departed for La Lumiere, a prep school in Indiana.

And head coach Roshawn Russell, who attracted all of this star-studded talent to the Catholic League school, stepped down last week. He is headed to St. Laurence to be an assistant under close friend Byron Burt.

That leaves two major talents at St. Rita. Nojus Indrusaitis, a 6-4 Iowa State recruit who is one of the top five prospects in the junior class, and Morez Johnson, an Illinois recruit that is the state’s top-ranked prospect in the Class 0f 2024. Where they wind up remains to be seen.

The common question among basketball observers has been this: What’s going on at St. Rita? How did a burgeoning program with what appeared to be an unlimited ceiling at the high school level dissolve overnight?

The scenario taking place at St. Rita is unlike anything we’ve seen in Chicago area basketball — ever. And that’s saying a lot considering all the drama and headlines this sport has generated over the decades.

St. Rita did win the Catholic League championship this past season. The program also put together a pretty daunting schedule that provided the school and players a spotlight and platform.

In addition to the Catholic League slate, in-state powers Joliet West, Simeon and Young were on the schedule. In addition, Russell added prep school giants Montverde Academy and Link Academy, and a host of other out-of-state powers, including Cardinal Ritter out of St. Louis and Kansas City Staley, a 30-2 team that spent most of the season ranked No. 1 in Kansas.

Nonetheless, when it was all said and done, the season didn’t exactly meet or surpass the wild but attainable expectations placed on this team back in November — at least from the outsiders. The Mustangs finished 23-11 and fell to Brother Rice, a team it beat in the regular season, in the sectional semifinals on their home floor.

In reality, this has all been percolating for over a year. I commonly joked with Russell many times over the past year when we spoke that I had to check in with him on the most recent “Rita rumors.”

For starters, Russell’s part-time job was to simply keep all these players on the roster. Yes, St. Rita did add Indrusaitis this past season, a Lemont transfer who played club basketball with Brown and Johnson. But there was always endless banter each offseason as to which St. Rita players were leaving the program for either prep schools or other Chicago area high school options. Everyone was constantly trying to poach St. Rita’s star players.

Russell would provide plenty of coachspeak about it all publicly, saying his kids were all on the same page and the team was in the right frame of mind. He did his best to keep the outside noise from hampering the development of his players and program. But make no mistake about it, the constant outside influences severely impacted the potential of this team and program. Those were major distractions.

While the program was certainly a tinderbox — and the talented Brown had made his decision to leave — the only hope St. Rita had to maintain the bulk of its talent was if Russell stayed.

St. Rita’s James Brown (13) reacts during the game against Brother Rice.

St. Rita’s James Brown (13) reacts during the game against Brother Rice.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

The players, more or less, were familiar with where this was headed before Russell officially resigned. While Brown was out the door and headed the prep school route, keeping the likes of Bell, Indrustaitis, Johnson and others in the program together was still tenable. Russell, after all, had become a pro at keeping it together up to this point.

So the question still not completely answered is why Russell, a 2008 St. Rita graduate who spent four years as a Mustangs assistant and four as the head coach, would step down? He was fresh off winning a Catholic League championship. He was still in the midst of climbing the mountain of the basketball elites in this state.

What were the outlying factors that may have pushed Russell to take what appears to be a pretty out-of-the-blue decision two months after the season ended?

This is also the athletic program where newly hired athletic director, Curtis Price, an alum and beloved figure in the St. Rita community, took a leave of absence in March after just eight months on the job.

Was the loss of Price another eye-opener for the basketball coach as to the direction of the athletic program? Could St. Rita’s administration and leaders have done more, whether it be philosophically or in support of the program, to keep its coach?

Russell, meanwhile, has taken the high road and has not pointed fingers. He’s kept a low profile and has been a little blasé in answering specifics as to why he made the move from leading a program to becoming an assistant coach in the same league.

“It was great coaching at my alma mater,” Russell said. “I’m extremely proud of what my staff and I accomplished during our time at St. Rita. It was a tough decision. As much as I wanted to see it through, I know this is the right decision for me and my family. I’m excited to join my friend Byron Burt at St. Laurence and continue to compete in the Catholic League.”

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