High school basketball: Nationally ranked St. Rita is all grown up

Illinois recruit Morez Johnson didn’t hesitate for an instant. He was answering the question before it was over: “No more building years. This is it, right now. State or bust.”

It may seem as if everyone has been hyping St. Rita’s talented young team forever, but the core duo of Johnson and James Brown are just juniors. They had an abbreviated freshman season with no playoffs due to COVID and reached a sectional final last season.

There were dominant flashes from the Mustangs last season…and then point guard Jaiden Reyna left the team in early February. He’s now playing in Indiana.

“We went through some adversity that you can’t see coming but I was proud we got through it all,” St. Rita coach Roshawn Russell said. “Obviously we wanted to go further but being in a sectional championship game that could have gone either way was a great learning experience.”

The Mustangs have loaded up with three major transfers: Nojus Indrusaitis from Lemont, Nashawn Holmes from Homewood-Flossmoor and Joseph Worthington-White from Indiana.

“Holmes is a great human and a really good player,” Russell said. “Worthington is just a throwback guard. He finds guys, is a table-setter and makes the game a lot easier for us.”

Indrusaitis is already a star. The 6-6 junior led Lemont to the Class 3A supersectionals last season and nearly spearheaded an upset of Simeon.

Indrusaitis’ arrival gives the Mustangs the top three juniors in the state and has catapulted them into several preseason national rankings. The team is as loaded with prospects as a prep school powerhouse.

“[The national ranking] is a big deal to us especially because we are the only nationally-ranked team in Illinois,” Brown said. “But we have to prove that we’re as good as people think we are.”

Brown is ranked 27th in the country by 247sports.com, Johnson is 58th and Indrusaitis checks in at 81. Sophomore Melvin Bell is the 59th-ranked player in the country in the sophomore class.

Bell is injured and not expected to return until the second half of the season but another sophomore, guard Amari Edwards, emerged late last season after Reyna transferred.

Brown was taller than Johnson freshman year but both are now 6-9 and much stronger than last season. The duo plays with Indrusaitis on the Meanstreets club basketball team, so the transition to high school teammates has been easy.

Nojus Indrusaitis (23) watches his teammates as he puts the Lemont offense in motion last season.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

“Everybody has been very welcoming,” Indrusaitis said. “I’ve been working on defense, that’s where I need to get better. It’s just going to take time and effort.”

St. Rita’s season opens with a major challenge. The Mustangs face highly-regarded Joliet West and Michigan State recruit Jeremy Fears Jr. on Wednesday at the prestigious Tournament of Champions in Washington, Ill.

“The key is to play together and stay within ourselves and not have anyone try and be the hero,” Brown said.

St. Rita has the talent to dominate the state for the next two seasons. And to Russell’s credit, the school has chosen to play up in Class 4A. That’s something the Public League powers have not done recently.

“We are bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic and just older,” Russell said. “You’ll see the difference in the overall feel for the game. The fans will enjoy watching this team. We are appreciative of the national rankings but we have to do it on the court. Rankings are one thing. Production is another.”

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