by Mark Maxwell
St. Rita opens its season against the Marist Redhawks Saturday at Soldier Field at 7 p.m. The Mustangs plan to unveil a new offense that features the highly touted senior transfer, Tommy Mister, at quarterback.
“When I came here, they were really a power-I under center, and when I came here, I thought maybe I was going to do something else,” Mister said. “Coach [Todd] Kuska put a lot of work into new offensive game plans. He's really got me getting the ball in space and doing what I do best and make plays.”
Mister has verbally committed to play in the Big 12 for Iowa State. His father, an avid Big Ten and Notre Dame fan, has tried to convince Tommy otherwise. When asked about his college plans, Mister said, “I really love the [Iowa St.] Cyclones and I want to play in the Big 12…but I got 14 weeks of football to play so anything could happen.”
The quarterback was more concerned with the game this weekend than what uniform he will be wearing next fall.
When asked about the Marist matchup, Mister said, “They’re definitely going to have their hands full.”
These two teams met last year to open the season. St. Rita played well at the start, but a costly turnover late in the game sealed the Mustangs’ fate as they fell to Marist, 35-25. The Mustangs offense was only able to produce 47 plays from scrimmage in contrast to Marist, who ran 77 offensive plays.
Senior linebacker John Connolly vows this year will be different.
“Last year, we weren't too well conditioned,” Connolly said. “This year, we're very well-conditioned. We've seen [Marist] play before. We run their no-huddle offense in practice. We're more prepared for this game this year. We're going to take every game seriously. Maybe last year we skipped a couple games but we're not going to lighten up on anyone. We're going to give everything we have, every single game.”
The senior linebacker had high praise for his new quarterback.
“He's super athletic. He makes us better." Connolly said, "He can do anything he wants. He makes the offense look better and he knows the calls and everything. He makes the defense better because he makes us prepare.”
Connolly also admitted that the Mustangs may have overlooked some opponents last year. He said they won’t make that mistake twice.
They will be competing with top Marist wide receiver Nic Weishar, a Notre Dame recruit, this Saturday. Weishar burned the Mustangs' secondary last year with 10 catches for 114 yards.
This time, the Mustangs will be ready for the up-tempo Redhawks offense.
Connolly remembers Weishar’s performance from last year.
“We talk about him all the time," he said. "We're excited to play against one of the best athletes in the country. Our whole team is excited. It's a great experience for us.”
The addition of Mister has not only improved the defense, but he has added an element to the Mustangs offense as well. Kuska says St. Rita has always been a run-first team. However, adding an athlete like Mister gives him much more creative liberty as he calls plays from the sideline.
“We always try to fit what our players can do," Kuska says. "That's definitely something that we've looked at this year and we've added a couple things for him that maybe we didn't have last year or the year before.”
Mister and the Mustangs offense are a confident bunch. They are very eager to get on the field and move past last season.
“My supporting cast, we got two great running backs, Tyre [Lee] and Derrick [DJ Miles]," Mister said. "We're just going to be a three-headed monster in the backfield. When you can just kill people on the ground and then pull up and throw it to talented receivers like Julian Crum and Malik Space and Brandon Gaston, it's just something that defensive coordinators just won't get sleep about. Too many weapons to defend.”
One of those weapons, senior running back DJ Miles, couldn’t suppress his excitement as he talked about the revamped offense.
“Our new offense that we have, us running the ball is going to open the passing game for Tommy," he said. "They need to watch out for us. St. Rita is back.”
Kuska has waited all offseason to get back onto the field with his players. He says the experience from last year’s disappointing season has made them stronger.
“Last year, we weren't able to gel at certain times. We could never make the big play to get us over the hump." Kuska said, "I told our seniors, 'sometimes you've got to see mistakes before you can correct them.' We've come together as a team in all aspects. I think our chemistry is working really well this year. Every once in a while, you have a team that really gels together and I think this is one of those teams.”
Last season was very uncharacteristic for the South Side powerhouse. For the first time in twelve years, St. Rita failed to make the playoffs. Starting the season with a loss to Marist was only the beginning of their woes. Riddled by injuries, the Mustangs fell to 4-5 and were unable to claim a single victory in the physical Chicago Catholic League Blue division.
“It's a brutal conference we play in - a great conference, but brutal when it comes to the physicality of it,” Kuska reminisced. “Usually, the team that is the healthiest is the team that's able to come out on top.”
St. Rita faces off in a home game against CCL-Blue foe Mt. Carmel on Sept. 27th, and they close the regular season at home against Loyola on Oct. 25th. Loyola and Mt. Carmel each won four games in the Blue division last season. They will likely represent the biggest challenges for the Mustangs this year.