By Jason Maholy
With Marist facing third-and-long and pinned inside their own 10 yard line, Jadon Thompson just wanted to make a play for his team.
Given the circumstances, the RedHawks junior wide receiver would have settled for giving his offense a fresh set of downs, but make a play he did. It turned out to be the longest play of his high school career, a 96-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
The play was the exclamation point on a 28-point third quarter for the RedHawks, who went into halftime leading Joliet Catholic, 14-6, and 12 minutes later had extended that to 42-6. That would be the final score in the East Suburban Catholic tilt played Sept. 20 on Chicago's South Side.
“I was like, I just got to make a play for my team,” said Thompson, a slender 6-3 wideout with blazing speed, who made a splash his sophomore season in 2017 and has this year established himself as as one of the best receivers in the area. “I just caught it, saw no one else and thought, 'I gotta go.'”
Marist has won four straight after an opening night loss to Brother Rice, and has followed up three consecutive nail-biters to start the season with back-to-back blowouts.
RedHawks second-year head coach Ron Dawczak is encouraged by the progress of his team, particularly a defense that was gutted by graduation. The largely young and inexperienced players who stepped into the voids are improving daily, and the team as a whole is jelling nicely midway through the season.
“We're starting to hit our stride,” Dawczak said. “The guys are putting in the work. We preach trying to get better every day in practice and the guys are really taking that to heart.”
The RedHawks talent was never in question, but what was uncertain was how the team's younger players would respond to larger and more integral roles, and if they would execute in big moments.
“These younger guys are going to naturally get better the more plays they get,” he said. “They're getting better every day in practice and it shows on Friday night.”
One player who was expected to perform at a high level was Thompson, who showed flashes of his potential last season. He finished the game with five catches for 159 yards and three touchdowns, and after a slow start to the season has 24 catches for 348 yards and five scores.
Thompson credited his teammates for his success, particularly for opening up the passing game.
“We set up the run game real well, and they brought up their safeties, then we hit them deep,” he said. “It's all because of my teammates, and the coaching staff really made a nice play call” on his 96-yard touchdown.
“He's a special player,” Dawczak said of Thompson. “He has all the skills you want in a wide receiver – great hands, great speed, he runs great routes; and if a team is going to try to take him away we've got other playmakers on the offense.”
Dawczak noted Billy Skalitzky, Declan Ryan and A.J. Markett have all stepped up at times this season to make plays when they've been needed.
“So it's not like we have one guy you can key on, we've got other guys that can hurt you,” he added.
One of those guys is dual threat senior quarterback Mike Markett, who against Joliet Catholic threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns, and ran 10 times for 116 yards and a score. Markett is in complete command of everything Marist does offensively.
“Even if a play doesn't go the way its supposed to he doesn't get rattled,” Dawczak said. “He knows what to do. He's very confident in his ability, and the coaches are very confident in his ability to make plays and to lead this offense. We ask a lot of him and he makes great plays. He's a very accurate thrower and a great runner.”
Skalitzky, who is listed as wide receiver but is after Markett the RedHawks top ball-carrier, rushed 17 times for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
The defense has now been dominant in two straight games, with contributions coming from more than 20 players.
“We're rotating guys in and everybody's contributing,” Dawczak said. “We're a very, very deep team and guys are making plays when they're called upon.”
The first three games – a 20-16 loss to Brother Rice and hard-fought victories over Mishawaka (Ind.) and Notre Dame – provided valuable learning experiences for the largely young RedHawks.
“Those first three weeks were dogfights, and the first week we didn't come out on top, but we learned a lot about ourselves,” Dawczak said. “We've been in those dogfights and we know what it takes. When our back's up against the wall our guys never stop fighting. We preach 48 minutes of football and they take it to heart, and they've been able to come out on top in some of these close wins. And it's going to pay dividends for us later in the year, I know it.”
Thompson said the RedHawks just have to keep improving.
“Every week we try to get better, we call it 'foot on the gas' – all gas no break,” he said. “We just try to keep pushing forward. Things are clicking, and we see our potential now.”