Matt Miller has tried to change the mindset at St. Ignatius since he became the head coach in 2017.
Players didn’t believe Miller when he said the Wolfpack could make the playoffs and win a game. After a historic season last year where St. Ignatius won its first playoff game in program history, Miller is trying to change his players’ minds again, this time to believe that they can compete for a state title.
“You realize how close you are,” Miller said. “We’ve taken some lumps in the playoffs, but you kind of get a chance to see the mountaintop. I really feel like we should be talking about competing for a state title and that’s our goal.”
St. Ignatius won its first playoff game last season when it defeated Bremen in the opening round before falling to Crete-Monee in the Class 6A second round. The Wolfpack entered their final game of the regular season against Fenwick undefeated and lost in a game that decided the CCL/ESCC White division champion.
Miller and his coaches have emphasized how different this season will be and the importance of the Wolfpack being prepared to get everyone’s best effort. After seasons of playing as an underdog, St. Ignatius is circled on a lot of teams’ schedules.
“We’re the hunted now, we’re not the hunters anymore,” senior Vinny Rugai said. “I like having the target on our back, but as a team we need to stay focused and not let it get to us, we can’t read into the press, keep our heads straight and play some good football.”
The Wolfpack will have experience from last season on both sides of the ball. Miller will need to replace three players from last season’s defense that allowed 94 points in 11 games last season, including four shutouts.
Junior Justin Scott returns after an impressive sophomore season on the defensive line. Scott is ranked the No. 1 junior prospect in Illinois by 247Sports and Rivals and he currently holds 19 Power Five issues, including from Notre Dame, USC, Oklahoma and Michigan.
Two-way player Rugai returns at inside linebacker after finishing last season with 98 total tackles, 17 for a loss, two interceptions and five forced fumbles while John Kemp returns at outside linebacker, holding 10 FCS offers.
“We just don’t have a big drop-off from the 11,” Miller said of his defense. “You have to feel good about that.”
St. Ignatius will return everyone in its backfield, including Rugai, who set a single-season program record with 1,264 rushing yards and added 16 touchdowns. Scott will play snaps at offensive line this season too, providing his 6-foot-5, 310-pound frame.
Jake Petrow returns at quarterback after taking over midway halfway through last season. The Wolfpack want to improve their passing offense so it can complement its running attack and Petrow feels more confident in his ability at the position.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Petrow said. “The nerves are not there at all, I feel more like a veteran and leader on this team.”
St. Ignatius knows what’s on the line when it opens the season against St. Patrick on Aug. 26. While the Wolfpack enjoyed the thrill of last season and its historical moments, they know they haven’t won a division title since 2017.
Expectations have changed for the Wolfpack each year, and now they’re focused on reaching the ultimate level.
“We know we need to raise the bar,” Rugai said. “Yeah we were good last year, but we lost in the second round, that’s not good enough. The bar needs to be raised and we can do it.”