By Steve Millar
St. Rita’s hopes to make a run in the IHSA state playoffs ended nearly two months before the Mustangs’ season concluded.
A 21-14 loss to eventual Class 8A runner-up Brother Rice on Sept. 28 dropped St. Rita to 2-5, officially eliminating them from playoff contention.
The Mustangs, though, kept playing hard.
It paid off Saturday as they closed the 2018 season in style by routing Taft 56-6 in the Prep Bowl at Gately Stadium.
“Our guys had resiliency,” St. Rita coach Todd Kuska said. “Our seniors wanted to keep playing football.
“We’re playing great football right now. It’s a shame our regular season didn’t go the way we wanted, but these guys turned it around. They deserve this.”
It’s the eighth Prep Bowl title and first since 2013 for St. Rita.
The Mustangs (7-6) closed the season with five straight wins – a victory over DePaul Prep in their regular-season finale followed by wins over Marmion, Hope Academy, De La Salle and Taft in the Prep Bowl playoffs.
The run helped take away some of the disappointment from the regular season, during which the Mustangs lost to two state champion teams in Joliet Catholic (5A) and Loyola (8A), runner-ups Montini and Brother Rice in the same respective classes, and a semifinalist in Richards.
Three of those losses were by 10 points or less.
“We were in almost every game and we played some tough teams,” St. Rita quarterback Hayden Ekern said. “We knew we were a good team.”
Ekern, a Montana State recruit, had a strong finish to his St. Rita career as he completed all four of his passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns. He was named Prep Bowl MVP.
Ekern threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Brongiel and a 29-yarder to Javon Venson as the Mustangs rolled to a 35-0 first-quarter lead over Taft (7-6).
“We all really wanted to keep playing and we all looked forward to the Prep Bowl playoffs,” Ekern said. “We wanted to go five more weeks and be playing at Thanksgiving. We were here to fight every day.
“Even though we didn’t win state, we were able to win something together. I love these guys. They’re my brothers and I’d do anything for them. This feels awesome.”
St. Rita essentially put the game away in the first four minutes.
Just 49 seconds in, freshman Kaleb Brown (4 carries, 66 yards) ran 44 yards for a touchdown.
The Mustangs’ following seven touchdowns were all scored by seniors.
On Taft’s first possession, St. Rita’s Ryan Strelczyk forced a fumble and fellow senior George Western scooped it up and dashed 48 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0.
“Ryan, my best friend on the d-line, set it up for me,” Western said. “I just had to seize the moment, execute right there.
“I was feeling a little tired. I was like ‘Man, I can’t do 90 yards.’”
Seniors Jake Stefanski (5 yards), Mick Doyle (10 yards), Zander Schultz (1 yard), and Frank Guarascio (1 yard) all scored touchdown runs for St. Rita.
The Mustangs’ starters were pulled from the game in the second quarter and received warm rounds of applause from the St. Rita fans.
“We were able to get all the starters out at the same time and those guys deserved that moment,” Kuska said.
It was quite a way for the St. Rita seniors to end their careers.
“It means the world to go out on a winning note,” senior linebacker Quinn Coghlan said.
“Not many teams get to do that. It feels great.”
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