Preseason No. 6: St. Rita

St. Rita will be powered by three-year defensive starters Charles Elmore, left, and Will McNamara. Scott Powers for ESPNChicago.com

Last season: 11-2 overall, 4-1 Catholic League Blue, lost in the Class 7A semifinals to Lake Zurich, ranked No. 6 in the final ESPNChicago.com 2010 poll

Season ahead: St. Rita senior linebacker Will McNamara doesn’t look back fondly at winning a share of the Catholic League Blue title.

It stings him that the Mustangs had to share the honor with Loyola and Mount Carmel.

“It’s a horrible feeling,” McNamara said. “We were three points away from winning it ourselves. That’s a horrible feeling. We turned the ball over six times. We should have easily won that game to Loyola.”

Needless to say, McNamara and company aren’t content in just getting a piece of the title again this season. They want it all to themselves.

Although Loyola and Mount Carmel also found places in ESPNChicago.com’s top 20 and Brother Rice and Providence should be in the mix, St. Rita is the favorite heading into the season.

The Mustangs will possess one of the biggest offensive lines in the state. Across the board, they’ll average more than 250 pounds. Behind that line, St. Rita coach Todd Kuska feels he has a couple capable running backs in Guerby Ministre and Mike Zunica, quarterback Scott Thomas and a handful of receivers.

On defense, the Mustangs return three-year starters McNamara and safety Charles Elmore, defensive end Pat O’Connor, who is drawing D-I looks, and a few other returnees.

“I feel we’re a hungry group of guys,” Kuska said.

Star power: St. Rita has plenty of size on its offensive line, but no one is bigger than 6-foot-8, 310-pound Nick Dachota. He’ll be the anchor of the Mustangs offensive line. He’s also receiving Division I interest.

Breakout performer: Senior quarterback Scott Thomas was given a small opportunity to prove himself last season. He started three games and held his own. Now as the full-time starter, Thomas will look to show he can lead St. Rita to a state title.

Defensive difference-maker: Linebacker Will McNamara and safety Charles Elmore give the Mustangs experience and skill at their respective positions. “They’re three-year starters,” Kuska said. “They’ve seen a lot. They have speed and knowledge. They can change directions very quickly. They can make sure other guys are lined up correctly.”

Newcomer to watch: St. Rita had a devastating rushing game last season with Juhwon Akui and Travis Starks. With both graduated, junior Guerby Ministre will become St. Rita’s featured back. “He’s got very good instincts,” Kuska said. “He’s able to start and stop quickly. He’s got good hands. He has a good talent set we’re hoping to use this year.”

Schedule breakdown: St. Rita’s two toughest games come at the end of its regular-season schedule with Mount Carmel and Loyola in back-to-back weeks. All three teams earned a shared of the Catholic League Blue title last year. If St. Rita wants at least a piece of it again, the Mustangs will need to finish the season strong. In their non-conference schedule, they face two out-of-state opponents. They’ll play Whitehaven from Memphis, Tenn. in East St. Louis.

Key game: Oct. 14 vs. Mount Carmel – It’s no different than any other year. Mount Carmel and St. Rita is one of the biggest games of the Illinois high school football season. St. Rita is riding a three-game winning streak against its rivals. “I think we’re going to stick it to them again and beat them again,” McNamara said.

What they’re saying: “I definitely want a state championship,” Elmore said. “I feel as a junior I let the seniors down.”