By Jeff Vorva

It’s never happened before.

It’s unlikely to ever happen again.

Nazareth Academy became the first football program in Illinois High School Association history to win a state championship despite starting the season 0-4 and despite qualifying for the playoffs with a 4-5 record.

Yet, there they were on Nov. 25, smiling and yelling, jumping up and down and laughing as they were presented with the Class 5A championship trophy at Hancock Stadium on the Illinois State University campus.

Even the final game had some uh-oh moments as the Roadrunners found themselves down 20-10 to Joliet Catholic Academy at halftime before scoring four second-half touchdowns for the 38-20 win and its fifth state championship trophy.

“It definitely was not easy,” coach Tim Racki said. “It’s just like any family. We had fights. We had ups. We had downs. But the love for each other is something that never wavered at all. Once we got that confidence, it really became a special journey to be on.”

Gabe Kaminski, who had 15 tackles in the title game and a momentum-changing

interception in the third quarter, said the comeback from the 4-5 season and the comeback from the 10-point deficit were expected.

“It all starts from the brotherhood and the love that coach Racki instills in us,” he said. “We had team building during the summer. Everyone on this team would die for each other. We love each other, and that’s what it really comes down to. There was no finger-pointing at halftime. We tried to find solutions.”

It’s been a wild season for the Roadrunners, who opened the season with a 33-26 loss to Kankakee, a 42-13 setback to York, a 24-23 loss to Montini, and a 36-34 loss to Immaculate Conception Catholic.

They followed it up with a 21-13 win over St. Ignatius, a 26-16 triumph over Fenwick, a 31-30 close shave against Brother Rice, and a 42-13 victory over Marian Catholic to knot their record at 4-4.

“Once we got that confidence, it really became a special journey to be on.”

– Coach Tim Racki

The ninth game of the season seemingly was going to decide if they would be in with a 5-4 record or miss the cut with a 4-5 mark. They dropped a 35-17 decision to Wheaton St. Francis and waited it out. They were saved when six teams with 4-5 records qualified for the postseason.

Their reward was a first-round trip to Prairie Grove, and when Nazareth came out a 35-28 win in that game, it was a statement that this was not a team that was going to be an easy out – five losses or no five losses.

The team swamped Glenbard South, 42-0, nipped Mundelein Carmel, 21-17, and picked up revenge in the semifinals with a 38-31 win over St. Francis.

That set up the showdown with Joliet.

“They didn’t play like a team with five losses,” said Joliet Catholic running back HJ Grigsby, who had 278 yards on 34 carries. “They played like a team that was undefeated.”

Junior quarterback Logan Malachuk threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns as the Roadrunners finished up with 524 yards on offense. James Penley had seven catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns, while Jake Cestone had four nabs for 163 yards and a score.

In 2022, the Roadrunners became the first team in state history to win a state title after starting a season with a 2-4 record. This season, they have even trumped that.

“I told the players that regardless of what was going to happen today, I’m going to be bummed out after we celebrate because it’s over,” Racki said. “This has not been easy, and I’ve never been through anything like this. I’m old enough to have thought I’ve seen it all.” ■

Western Springs’ Brendan Flanagan is all smiles after Nazareth beat Joliet Catholic for the Class 5A state title on Nov. 25. Photos by Jeff Vorva
Nazareth receiver Jake Cestone stretches for a touchdown in the Roadrunners’ 38-20 win over Joliet Catholic for the Class 5A state title.
Nazareth’s band kept the Roadrunners fans entertained at the state championship game in Normal.