Features | Friday Night Drive

CCL/ESCC notes: St. Rita, Mount Carmel ready for historic 100th matchup

One of Illinois’ greatest football rivalries will reach a historic milestone Friday when St. Rita and Mount Carmel kick off the season.

The Mustangs and Caravan will meet for the 100th time in a matchup between two programs that have won 15 state championships combined and exemplifies football at its best.

“It’s the epitome of what high school football is all about,” St. Rita coach Todd Kuska said. “Two programs that have great tradition, legacy and history, great fanbases.”

The 100th matchup pins two teams vying for state championships this season. Friday Night Drive’s Steve Soucie ranks Mount Carmel as the second-best team in the state in his preseason poll while St. Rita is ranked at No. 14. The Mustangs lost in the Class 7A state title game for the second postseason in a row while the Caravan fell to Brother Rice in the 7A quarterfinals.

Kuska expects a battle in the trenches as both teams return strong offensive and defensive lines. The Mustangs’ defensive line will be led by Illinois commit Pat Farrell and will be backed up by a strong linebacking crew led by Matt Kingsbury.

The St. Rita defense will have to stop dual-threat senior quarterback Blainey Dowling and junior running back Darrion Dupree, one of the best rushers in the state.

“Hopefully we can match up,” Kuska said. “We have a lot of returning guys in that aspect and hopefully we can limit their big plays, make them drive the football.”

Mount Carmel’s defense led by lineman Asher Tomaszewski and linebacker Danny Novickas will face a tough Mustangs offensive line led by Nick Strelczyk that will try to create holes for electric running backs Ethan Middleton and DJ Stewart. Junior quarterback Jett Hilding will take over the starter’s position.

While the game will feature plenty of great matchups, Kuska knows the game will come down to fundamentals.

“It’s high school football,” Kuska said. “You’ve got to run, you’ve got to tackle, you’ve got to not turn the ball over. That’s what the game of football comes down to.”

The game will be surrounded by pregame festivities at Mount Carmel before the game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Mount Carmel will host a pregame celebration for alumni from both football programs that will feature food, drinks and appearances from Kuska and Mount Carmel coach Jordan Lynch, both of whom attended their schools that they now coach.

While both teams know there’s bigger goals than just winning the first game of the season, the Mustangs and Caravan know Friday’s importance to their schools communities.

“It’s a great thing to be a part of this rivalry,” Kuska said. “I’ve had the privilege of being a player and a coach in it, so what an awesome experience it is and I’m honored to be part of the 100th game. It’s going to be a great night.”

Marist looks to take advantage of opportunity

Ron Dawczak will quickly learn at what level his team is ready to compete this season when it hosts Glenbard West on Saturday.

The Marist coach will have new faces at different positions this season and he’s ready to see how his team plays against one of the top programs in the state.

“What do they do, how do they come out and respond to that,” Dawczak said of starting the season against Glenbard West. “This is really going to show what this team is made of. Every year is different, the teams are different and I think this particular team is going to show what its personality is as a unit right from the start. I look forward to seeing that as a coach.”

Soucie ranks Glenbard West No. 5 while Marist earned a No. 11 ranking in the preseason poll. Dawczak knows the Hilltoppers are an extremely physical team that brings back an experienced offensive line led by Wisconsin commit Chris Terek.

The coach also knows Glenbard West has playmakers like running back Joey Pope, who rushed for 1,000 yards last season, and senior quarterback Korey Tai and junior wide receiver JuJu Ellens, both of whom enter their third varsity season.

Returning RedHawk defensive starters like defensive lineman, Wisconsin commit Jamel Howard and cornerback, Iowa commit John Nestor will be critical matchups to watch as they try to slow down a dynamic offense.

“They have gamebreakers on offense to take advantage of the holes their offensive line will open up,” Dawczak said. “Defensively, they’re always one of the top teams in the state.”

Dawczek wants his team to start fast. The offense will be led by new starting quarterback Dermot Smyth and senior wide receiver Ryan Sims as they’ll face a strong defense led by senior middle linebacker Jack Oberhofer.

“I’m looking forward to these guys taking advantage of this opportunity,” Dawczak said. “I know they’re excited. It’s been a long time since they played football against another team. I want to see them go right from the start.”

Great test for Nazareth

Nazareth coach Tim Racki is excited for the challenge Kankakee will present when the two start off the season on Friday in LaGrange Park.

“I love this because we get to find out right away where we’re at and what direction we need to work on,” Racki said.

Friday’s matchup will pin two of the better programs in the state against each other. The Roadrunners lost in the Class 5A quarterfinals to eventual state champion Fenwick last season while the Kays lost to the Friars in the state title game.

Kankakee features plenty of talent, including senior cornerback prospect Jyaire Hill, the fourth-best prospect in Illinois by 247Sports Composite who holds 25 Power Five offers from schools like Illinois, Michigan, Auburn, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.

The Kays will also feature a big offensive line and other playmakers, which is why Racki has trained his players more than he has in the past so they’re prepared.

There is an unknown with any Week 1 matchup since teams don’t have tape on what opponents have installed over the summer, but Racki is excited for the opportunity Friday night will bring.

“I think the positives out-weight the concerns because by late Friday night, Saturday, we’ll see where we’re at and what we need to work on,” Racki said. “It’s only the first step in a long journey so regardless of what the outcome is, hopefully we’ll see where we need to improve and where we’re strong.”

Fenwick’s historic start

Fenwick’s historic matchup against Oak Park-River Forest on Saturday will have an added element to it when the two teams play at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview.

The crosstown rivals will play each other for the first time since 1989 and many players on both teams have known each other well for years, but the Friars are trying to treat the matchup as a normal game.

“There’s that added factor to it that helps get the players engaged and excited, but at the end of the day, the mentality we take as a team is it doesn’t matter who we play or where we’re at, we’re going to be excited because we get to play football with our family,” Fenwick coach Matt Battaglia said.

Fenwick will have plenty of new starters as it tries to defend its Class 5A state title while OPRF will try to start its season with a good win after missing the Class 8A playoffs by one game last season. Battaglia is looking forward to the challenge of not only playing a neighbor in a professional stadium, but also the challenge of playing up against a bigger school.

“It’s going to be a great challenge for us because the size of schools is different and seeing them on film, we know they have a lot of returning starters, it’s a veteran group and we have a lot of fresh faces,” Battaglia said. “Having the kids face that challenge and see how they respond to it, I’m really excited to see how they respond to that challenge.”

Loyola tickets going fast

Fans who want to attend Loyola’s matchup against Ohio’s St. Xavier on Sunday will need to get their tickets fast. The school announced there are tickets available but few will be available once Sunday approaches.

Loyola also encouraged fans to carpool, walk or use ridesharing as parking will be very limited.

The game will be broadcast on ESPN.