A year ago as a junior, A.J. Markett saw his brother, Mike, lead the Marist football team as quarterback to a dominant season and appearance in the Class 8A state semifinals.

Mike did it all, throwing for 2,032 yards and 17 touchdowns and also rushing for 944 yards and 11 touchdowns.

For A.J., the stats were impressive, but he was more impressed with his brother’s ability to lead.

“I looked up to Mike a lot. I saw how he was a leader in the program and the school,” A.J. said. “He made it easier for me to see how to be a leader and how to take over being a senior and the responsibility that comes with it.”

Football was in the air as Marist competed on June 22 in the annual Richards 7-on-7 tournament.

Last season, the RedHawks finished 11-2, winning their third straight East Suburban Catholic Conference title before falling to rival Br. Rice in the state semis.

A.J. Markett came off the bench to aid a deep receiving corps, finishing the campaign with 15 catches, 227 yards and a touchdown.

With his brother and Billy Skalitzky being the focal points of last year’s offense, their graduation means that A.J. will be required to play a bigger role offensively.

“Billy, Mike, Declan Ryan, our seniors worked their tails off, and it showed on the field,” Markett said. “It’s awesome to know that it’s our chance to lead now. We’ve been working all through the offseason, and now it’s our time.”

Skalitzky (Dayton) saw time in the backfield (617 yards, 12 TD) and at wide receiver (633 yards, 3 TD), a role that Marist Coach Ron Dawczak said Markett could fit into this year.

“We can use A.J. in a lot of different ways. He’s got the versatility,” Dawczak said. “He knows the offense. Now, it’s a matter of stepping into that role where he’s going to be the guy. He’s going to get a lot of opportunities in a lot of different ways.”

Senior Hayden Mikesell and sophomore Dontrell Jackson will battle for the starting quarterback spot.

With new players stepping up at the skill positions, Markett is excited to see the offense find its identity and score some points. Marist averaged 30 points in 13 games last season.

“The potential is through the roof with our seniors and young guys coming up,” Markett said. “We can be a pretty explosive offense. We’re all ready to go.”

At Richards, Marist competed against Hillcrest, Lincoln-Way East, Lyons Township and Thornwood.

With the RedHawks defense losing five of its top six tacklers, senior cornerback Kivonte Houston is ready to help lead the way.

Houston finished with 43 tackles, 2 interceptions and 7 passes deflected last year. Also returning is senior linebacker Colin Bohanek (72 tackles).

“It’s important to see the young guys, especially our juniors, getting after it,” Houston said. “For goals, we want to develop and get better. You could see the major improvements in camp recently, especially adapting to the varsity level.”

As for the season-ending Br. Rice loss last year, Houston remembers it all too well.

“It’s in the back of your head all offseason,” Houston said. “We need to build off that run, see the mistakes we made and fix them. Eliminate the small mistakes so a loss like that doesn’t happen again.”