At halftime of a cold, rainy and windy Class 5A state championship on Nov. 30, St. Rita faced a 21-point deficit against a perennial powerhouse, and things looked bleak for the Mustangs’ quest for a state crown.
However, senior wide receiver and team captain Nick Adent knew one thing: the Mustangs would fight to the end.
In making Rochester earn its eighth state title in 10 years, St. Rita scored 3 touchdowns in the game’s final 8 minutes, including an Adent TD reception; but the deficit was too much, and Rochester won 42-28 at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium.
Adent said the late effort was important to the team.
“It definitely meant a lot, especially for the seniors,” Adent said. “Going into the second half, we knew we had 24 minutes left, so you want to make the most of every single minute. It’s your last time putting on a St. Rita jersey. We weren’t going to fold.”
St. Rita finished 10-4. The state championship appearance was the first for the Mustangs since 2006 when they won the Class 7A title.
Rochester finished 13-1.
After starting the season 1-3, St. Rita bounced back with incredible stamina. Its 9-game winning streak ended with more state hardware for the school’s trophy case.
“We didn’t get the results we wanted, but I’m really proud of our guys for fighting,” said St. Rita Coach Todd Kuska. “They continued to fight to the end. It’s a credit to these seniors. No one expected us to be here, and they fought through like they fought through it today.”
Rochester dominated early, scoring on its first drive on the way to a 21-0 lead early in the second. After St. Rita sophomore Tommy Ulatowski ran for a TD in the second quarter, the Rockets went on to lead 28-7 at halftime, fueling their effort in the first half with a handful of third-and long conversions.
On the defensive end, Rochester knew where to focus and bottled up St. Rita star sophomore running back Kaleb Brown to the tune of 18 yards on 20 carries. Brown came into the game with 1,947 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns this season.
“Defensively, they were sending extra people up [to the line], including some linebackers,” Brown said. “They were coming off the edge, too.”
Kuska credited Rochester’s game plan for controlling the game early.
“They jumped on us really quick offensively and took away some of our interior run game,” Kuska said. “They got us in some situations that we weren’t accustomed to. They put us out of our comfort zone. We didn’t play as well as we could have.”
The Mustangs showed their spirit on a perfectly executed trick play with 8:16 left in the fourth quarter when Brown connected through the air with Adent for a pretty 53-yard touchdown to make the score 42-14.
Junior quarterback Brian Johnson (Mt. Greenwood, St. Christina) added 2 rushing touchdowns late in the fourth and finished with 54 yards.
St. Rita was held to 99 yards on 35 carries. Rochester gained 444 yards to St. Rita’s 247 yards.
Even when down big, Adent said, the Mustangs played with intensity and took pride in their effort.
“We had that ‘don’t quit’ mentality all year. We were 1-3 to start the season,” he said. “It’s your last half, so you want to go out the best possible way. We fought hard and showed what St. Rita football is all about.”
Leading the defense for St. Rita were Michael Gaughan (10 tackles, 2 TFL, fumble recovery), Michael Milton (9 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks), Tramon Lias (8 tackles), Marty Larkin (7 tackles), Zenin Hall (7 tackles, 2 TFL), Kyle James (6 tackles) and Evan Wojcicki (fumble recovery).
Milton (Beverly, Sutherland) was a force at defensive end for St. Rita throughout his senior season, and the second half of the championship game was his final chapter in a story that will continue for the Mustangs.
“It hits you; you think about this being your last chance to play,” Milton said. “As soon as it hits you, that was it, taking the field or putting on a St. Rita jersey for the last time. It hurts, but you live and learn.
“I expect them to be here again next year.”