SOMETHING BIG STARTING AT ST. RITA
COACH RUSSELL READY TO DRAW ON OLD BOSSES’ TEACHINGS TO SUPERCHARGE A PROGRAM LOADED WITH YOUNG TALENT
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.” ✶
St. Rita coach Roshawn Russell.
The Mustangs celebrate with their trophy after beating Morton in the final of the Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Classic at Riverside-Brookfield last November.
St. Rita’s Christian Henry, who returns as a senior, breaks for the basket. Solomon Mosley