Special teams plays send St. Rita past St. Charles North, a game closer to return to state

St. Rita players celebrate their win over St. Charles North in their 7A quarterfinal game in St. Charles on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

ST. CHARLES – St. Rita’s mission to return to the state title game in Champaign isn’t quite finished yet.

The Mustangs showed, however, they should have more than enough gas in the tank to get there.

St. Rita blocked two punts that were returned for touchdowns, blocked a field-goal attempt and forced three turnovers in a 28-7 victory over St. Charles North in a Class 7A quarterfinal Nov. 12.

The complete effort was a testament to the consistency the program has demonstrated virtually all season.

“You just want to get better each and every week,” St. Rita coach Todd Kuska said. “We’ve been able to do that. We take care of the football, and in the playoffs, you’ve got to be able to run the ball, stop the run. We were able to do that at times – not as well as we would’ve liked – but we pride ourselves on being able to do what we can when we can. We were able to do it today.”

St. Rita lost in the 7A state title game to Wheaton North last year.

Special teams was one of the prominent reasons why the Mustangs advanced Saturday.

St. Rita's Conor Talty (31) kicks an extra point during their 7A quarterfinal game against St. Charles North in St. Charles on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

The Mustangs scored first when junior linebacker Noah Gertonson recovered a blocked North Stars punt on the opening possession for a stunning 7-0 lead 54 seconds into the game.

St. Charles North struck right back with an eight-play drive that was capped by quarterback Will Vaske’s 15-yard completion to Drew Surges to even it at 7-7 with 9:37 left.

After a Mustangs punt, Vaske was intercepted by linebacker Matt Kingsbury, but the North Stars’ defense held firm to force another punt.

The North Stars appeared in business for a score after Vaske’s 59-yard completion to Jake Furtney, but a fumble on the goal line exchange was lost and recovered by St. Rita sophomore KeyAndre White with 2:22 remaining in the first quarter.

St. Charles North kicker Hunter Liszka missed a long field-goal attempt with 7:51 remaining in the first half, and St. Rita answered with a 27-yard field goal by Alabama commit Conor Talty for a 10-7 Mustangs lead with 2:26 left.

Kingsbury blocked a Liszka field-goal attempt midway through the third quarter, and Talty drilled a 42-yard field goal for a 13-7 Mustangs advantage with 4:18 remaining in the quarter.

St. Rita (10-2) blocked another punt and Kingsbury returned it for a touchdown. The two-point conversion was taken in by quarterback Jett Hilding for a 21-7 St. Rita lead with seven minutes left.

Vaske was intercepted by Jack Cronin. Wideout Ethan Middleton’s 11-yard touchdown run was the final knockout punch to the North Stars’ 10-game winning streak.

St. Charles North's Drew Surges (6) runs the ball in for a touchdown during their 7A quarterfinal game against St. Rita in St. Charles on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

“Special teams are a huge part of the game. I know everybody says that, but it was very evident today,” Kuska said. “We start today with the blocked punt, we got one again late and having the kicker [Talty] that we’ve got, he was able to kick us [into points]. ... Our special teams have been a strong suit all year and it showed today as well.”

“We actually talked about [punt situations] on film [and] in our vision training. We showed them some things on specials that we felt like we could take advantage of. Then, I said, ‘buyer-beware.’ Here are a couple things that I’m concerned about that we’ve really got to have our head on,” North Stars coach Rob Pomazak said. “The first one was [St. Rita’s] punt return. We highlighted the interior guys because they go hard and we said we’ve got to allow our long snapper and holder to execute and we have to be able to keep the area clear. Kids tried their best. I just don’t think we executed the way we should’ve and 14 points off of that particular special was not going to win you games at this level.”

St. Charles North (10-2) leaves the postseason field on a difficult note. The North Stars won the DuKane Conference outright after a perfect run through conference play and rode Surges, perhaps one of Illinois’ finest two-way players, until the very end.

Surges, in his final game, had 76 rushing yards, 62 receiving yards and numerous defensive tackles that included a touchdown-saving score on a Middleton 42-yard run in the third quarter.

“They’re everything,” a tearful Surges said about his team in his curtain call. “No one believed in us from the start of this year, so making it this far, we knew we could do it, but we had more to go.”

Mustangs junior running back DJ Stewart had 97 rushing yards and Hilding finished with 47 passing yards and an interception.

The North Stars’ final offensive snap of the game ended with its seniors on the field for a final time. Vaske finished with 241 passing yards on 11 completions and two interceptions.

“I love my guys,” said Vaske, who battled back from a shoulder sprain earlier in the season to help lead the North Stars to a conference title and quarterfinal appearance. “We put in so much effort this year. We got the most heart out of any team I’ve ever played for. I couldn’t ask for a better team, better teammates and better coaches. They made this experience so much better.”