While Mount Carmel boasts nine state championships and Loyola has the flashy offense and the 2011 conference title, St. Rita has become the Catholic League Blue's lunchpail team. The Mustangs went 10-3, beat Mount Carmel for the fourth consecutive year and reached the Class 7A semifinals without any real high-profile recruits. That team was built on defense, and while the team's few recognizable names are gone, the unit's most reliable player is back. Nose guard Chuck Haas was the only St. Rita defender to take every first-team snap last season, and he's back to do the dirty work that allows the linebackers to look good. That makes him a perfect captain for a program that values substance over style.
"I feel honored to be named captain," said the 5-foot-8, 230-pound Haas, who had 32 tackles last year. "I love playing the position. I've been playing it my whole life. "My job is to give the linebackers an opening to make plays. I get recognition from my coaches and linebackers. That is all I need."
Nothing complements a good defense like a strong running game, and the Mustangs' formula will be a familiar one this fall. While coach Todd Kuska laughs at the annual fuss that's made over the identity of St. Rita's quarterback — "Don't most teams have new quarterbacks?" he said. — St. Rita rarely struggles to run the ball.
A pair of potential Division I recruits — Alex Zaleski and Kevin Pergande — return to lead a large, experienced offensive line. Kuska has three running backs he likes — Tim Lombard, Guerby Ministre and newcomer D.J. Miles — and two quarterbacks — John Kelley and Tom McCormick — with different skill sets.
There's no reason to doubt the Mustangs once again will be among the leading contenders in Class 7A, and they should learn a lot about themselves Saturday when they take on No. 8 Marist at Soldier Field. "It is a nice one, a nice neighborhood game," Kuska said. "Any time you get a chance to play on a professional field, it is a great thing for the kids."
Mustangs at a glance
Last season: 10-3, 3-1, 2nd Catholic League Blue; lost 21-14 to Wheaton Warrenville South in Class 7A semifinals.
Playoff history: 26 appearances, 2 state titles (5A in '78, 7A in '06).
He's back: Alex Zaleski, Sr., 6-3, 280, OL; Tim Lombard, Sr., 6-0, 180, RB (893 yards rushing, 12 TDs); Kevin Pergande, Sr., 6-3, 260, OL; Jack Sears, Sr., 6-1, 205, LB; Troy Johnson, Sr., 6-1, 240, OL/DL.
He's gone: Scott Thomas, QB; Will McNamara, LB; Charles Elmore, DB.
He's new: Ben Threloff, Sr., 6-3, 225, LB/DE; John Kelley, Sr., 6-1, 180, QB; Tom McCormick, Sr., 6-0, 205, QB/WR.
Big names: On a roster void of them, Zaleski, Pergande and Threloff are receiving the most attention from colleges.
Big game: They're all tough in the Catholic Blue, but nothing matches the tradition of the St. Rita-Mount Carmel rivalry. The schools will meet for the 90th time on Oct. 12 at Gately Stadium.
Big question: Will there be enough firepower to win playoff games against strong defensive teams?
FYI: The Mustangs reached the 7A semifinals the last two seasons and the quarterfinals the last four.
Breakdown: This appears to be a typical St. Rita team that will rely heavily on defense and the ground game. The formula is time-tested, and if things break right the Mustangs could be in the hunt for their third state title.
Courtesy of Mike Helfgot, Special to the Tribune