St. Rita ends St. Charles North season in quarterfinals
St. Rita's mission to return to the state title game in Champaign isn't quite finished yet.
It showed, however, it should have more than enough gas in the tank to get there.
The Mustangs blocked two punts that were returned for touchdowns, one field goal attempt and forced three turnovers on defense in their 28-7 victory over St. Charles North in Saturday's Class 7A quarterfinal.
That complete effort is a testament to the consistency the program has demonstrated virtually 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, which lost in the 7A state title game to Wheaton North last year, will play Mt. Carmel next Saturday at home.
Special teams was one of the most prominent reasons why the Mustangs advanced.
The Mustangs struck first on junior linebacker Noah Gertonson recovering a blocked North Stars punt on their opening possession for a stunning 7-0 lead 54 seconds into the game.
St. Charles North, however, struck right back with an eight-play drive that was capped off 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 set up by 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 his 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 the 10-7 Rita lead with 2:26 left.
Kingsbury blocked a Liszka field goal attempt midway through the third quarter, and Talty promptly drilled a 42-yard attempt for the 13-7 Mustangs advantage with 4:18 remaining in the quarter.
St. Rita (10-2) then blocked another punt and Kingsbury returned it for a touchdown. The ensuing two-point conversion was converted by quarterback Jett Hilding for the 21-7 St. Rita lead with seven minutes left.
Vaske was promptly intercepted by Jack Cronin and wideout Ethan Middleton's 11-yard touchdown run was the final knockout punch on the North Stars' 10-game winning streak.
"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 '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 potentially touchdown-saving score in the third quarter on a Middleton 42-yard run.
"They're everything," a tearful Surges said about his overall team in his curtain call. "No one believed in us from the start if 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 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. "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."