Zenin Hall

Senior defensive back Zenin Hall (10) and a host of St. Rita defenders bottle up the Hillcrest offense with a tackle for a loss. (Review photo)

The St. Rita defense has adopted the nickname of “The Nobody Defense.”

But after a pair of dominating performances against playoff teams with a combined 20-1 record, it’s safe to say that football fans in the state know how good the Mustangs are on defense.

After shutting out previously unbeaten Sterling 32-0 on the road, St. Rita nearly matched the feat with a convincing 35-8 victory at Hillcrest on Nov. 16 in the Class 5A state quarterfinals.

St. Rita (9-3), winners of 8 straight, will host Rockford Boylan in the semis.

“[Defensive Coordinator Terry Quinn] always preaches that we have 11 nobodies out there and to go out and kick butt. There are no star players. It’s a team. It’s a unit,” said senior defensive end Evan Wojcicki. “We aren’t the biggest group of guys, but we have speed to burn. Our defense is peaking at the right time. We know each and every week that we have a chance to shut teams down.”

Although St. Rita’s offense and special teams played well, it was the defense that set the tone throughout the afternoon. 

Hillcrest (10-2) gained 66 yards on its first two possessions but could muster only 14 yards on its next six.

“Once we got into the playoffs, the defense was outstanding. We shut out Sterling and shut out these guys the majority of the time,” said St. Rita Coach Todd Kuska. “Since the Montini loss in week four, we haven’t given up many points. We aren’t overly big, but we are quick and get to the ball. Defense travels.”

St. Rita got a big spark from its special teams midway through the second quarter when senior Tommy Hixson corralled a punt, found open field and raced up the sideline for a 52-yard score.

“When I saw the punt coming down, I saw all of my guys in front of me blocking hard. I knew I had to do something to get the boys going,” said Hixson. “We know how much momentum can change with a big special teams play.”

Jorge Verduzco connected on the first of his 5 point-after kicks.

The energy continued soon after with a massive play from the defense when Wojcicki jarred the ball loose from Hawks quarterback Robert Myles on a sack. Dontrell Flowers pounced on the loose ball at the Hillcrest 7-yard line.

On the ensuing play, sophomore running back Kaleb Brown raced into the end zone for the first of his 2 scores to extend the cushion to 14-0.

St. Rita led by that score until the first possession of the second half. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Ulatowski connected with junior back Kyle James for a 14-yard score to open the second half.

Brown finished with 135 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown scamper in the third.

Junior linebacker Michael Gaughan put an exclamation point on the defensive effort with an interception on the second play of the fourth quarter.

“I missed one earlier, so I was pretty mad about it and knew I needed to get one. My defensive line tipped the ball, which made it easier, and I came down with it,” he said. “You don’t hear a lot of people talk about our defense, but you see what we can do. We refuse to lose.”

Running back Jaden Edwards (10 carries, 52 yards) scored the Mustangs’ final touchdown.

Other defensive standouts included Tramon Lias (fumble recovery), Zenin Hall (two tackles for loss) and Michael Milton (sack, tackle for loss).

Hillcrest played without junior standout running back Mar’Kiese Irving, who injured his leg in a second-round win.