SOME­THING BIG START­ING AT ST. RITA

COACH RUS­SELL READY TO DRAW ON OLD BOSSES’ TEACH­INGS TO SUPERCHARG­E A PROGRAM LOADED WITH YOUNG TAL­ENT

Chicago Sun-Times - - CENTER OF ATTENTION - BY JOE HENRICKSEN | @joe­hoop­sre­port

Adecade ago, Gary DeCe­sare took over a St. Rita bas­ket­ball program that had won three re­gional ti­tles in its his­tory. Af­ter go­ing 43-34 in his first three sea­sons build­ing up the program, DeCe­sare ramped up the Mus­tangs’ sched­ule and had them av­er­ag­ing 20 wins a sea­son over the next seven years — dur­ing which they added four re­gional ti­tles.

The program also raised its pro­file with big­ger-name play­ers, in­clud­ing Charles Matthews, who signed with Ken­tucky and even­tu­ally starred at Michi­gan, and Tony Hicks, who scored more than 1,000 points in just three sea­sons at Penn be­fore trans­fer­ring to Louisville.

What’s tran­spir­ing now un­der coach Roshawn Rus­sell may be an ex­ten­sion of DeCe­sare’s work in prop­ping up St. Rita bas­ket­ball, but it’s also com­pletely un­seen in the program’s his­tory. The abun­dance of tal­ent is eye-open­ing — enough to make even a Public League power jeal­ous. As one prom­i­nent city coach said re­cently, “St. Rita cleaned up in that fresh­man class.”

The rise in tal­ent is rem­i­nis­cent of an­other Catholic League program, Fen­wick, which got a sud­den jolt in the mid-1990s from a fresh­man class headed by su­per­star Corey Maggette that also in­cluded fu­ture Divi­sion I play­ers Mark Tread­well and Chris Wil­liams.

Rus­sell, a re­spected coach who worked five years un­der DeCe­sare, now has the keys — and is grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity he was given be­fore even turn­ing 30.

“First, I am for­tu­nate to work at a place like St. Rita,” said Rus­sell, a 2008 grad­u­ate who starred for the Mus­tangs as a player. “The place re­ally sells it­self — the spir­i­tu­al­ity there, the aca­demics, and then they have been so com­pet­i­tive ath­let­i­cally. It’s a pre­mier Catholic school where they are shap­ing men

and help­ing them be­come pro­duc­tive men in so­ci­ety. There’s a big pic­ture at St. Rita, and that, I think, res­onates with fam­i­lies.”

While ad­mit­ting the Mus­tangs now have the most tal­ent he has seen in his six years coach­ing at 79th and Western, Rus­sell re­peat­edly talks about process, look­ing back at his ex­pe­ri­ence as a Divi­sion III as­sis­tant for coach Steve Schafer at Font­bonne Univer­sity in St. Louis. Schafer, who was named the new coach at Divi­sion III power Au­gus­tana this sum­mer, spear­headed a mas­sive re­build at lit­tle-known Font­bonne nine years ago. Rus­sell said he learned a great deal from Schae­fer about lay­ing a foun­da­tion.

“I just re­mem­ber the process he had in build­ing a program, putting the work in to do it and, most im­por­tantly, do­ing it the right way,” Rus­sell said.

Schae­fer had his eye on Rus­sell for a long time. He first re­cruited him to Divi­sion III North Park in Chicago, then was his as­sis­tant coach there. He later brought him to Font­bonne as a grad­u­ate as­sis­tant coach.

“He does an un­be­liev­able job of con­nect­ing with play­ers,” Schae­fer said of Rus­sell. “He works his tail off, has no ego and is hum­ble. He showed the makeup to one day be a great coach, if that was the road he chose.”

How quickly St. Rita’s suc­cess ma­te­ri­al­izes re­mains to be seen. Rus­sell won 21 games last sea­son in his first year in charge. Se­nior guard Chris­tian Henry is a key re­turner from that team. But the Mus­tangs will be very young, with a promis­ing sopho­more class and the heav­ily hyped fresh­men group.

In ad­di­tion to the tal­ent, Rus­sell’s program is loaded with dif­fer­ence-mak­ing size and length — more like that of a col­lege program. Kaiden Space, a smooth, heady guard, is among the bet­ter shoot­ers in the Class of 2023. Both Space and 6-7, 225-pound Solomon Mosley gained var­sity ex­pe­ri­ence a year ago as fresh­men. Dar­rien Baker is a skilled 6-7 sopho­more who missed last sea­son with an in­jury but has Divi­sion I po­ten­tial, and Evan Jack­son is a still-bloom­ing 6-6 sopho­more.

Among the bal­ly­hooed fresh­men, four al­ready have Divi­sion I schol­ar­ship of­fers. The head­lin­ers are 6-8 James Brown, a pol­ished-for-his-age for­ward, and high-mo­tored Morez Johnson, who’s 6-6 and still grow­ing. They’re ar­guably the top two prospects in the Class of 2024 in Illi­nois. Josh Pickett is a 6-3 guard with a chance to be spe­cial, while fel­low guard Jaiden Reyna is also ad­vanced for a fresh­man.

Rus­sell has high hopes. But he also knows and preaches that there will be a learn­ing curve.

“We want our young play­ers to learn, learn to play to­gether, to sac­ri­fice and get bet­ter ev­ery day,” he said. “If we’re get­ting bet­ter, that’s go­ing to be suc­cess. If this group . . . buys into what we are try­ing to do as a program, stay to­gether, build a bond with one an­other, then there will be a chance for them to do some­thing spe­cial down the road. But there is a lot of work to be done. The po­ten­tial is there to be the very best we’ve had here, but there is a long, long way to go.” ✶

PRO­VIDED

St. Rita coach Roshawn Rus­sell.

KIRSTEN STICKNEY/SUN-TIMES

The Mus­tangs cel­e­brate with their tro­phy af­ter beat­ing Mor­ton in the fi­nal of the Bill Van­deMerkt Thanks­giv­ing Clas­sic at River­side-Brook­field last Novem­ber.

KIRSTEN STICKNEY/SUN-TIMES

St. Rita’s Chris­tian Henry, who re­turns as a se­nior, breaks for the bas­ket. Solomon Mosley

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