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Let them play: IHSA lays out amended plan for 2020-21 athletics

By Jason Maholy
Sports Editor

High school athletics in Illinois are set to return this fall, with modifications to the sports calendar and notice from the IHSA’s executive director that the matter as it relates to COVID-19 remains uncertain moving forward.

The IHSA on July 29 announced its plan for the 2020-21 high school athletics schedule, which features four official seasons, condensed schedules and shuffling some sports out of season. Several sports that usually compete in spring will play a summer schedule that will conclude a week before Independence Day.

Fall sports competitions will be limited to those between conference opponents and teams in the “same general geographic location,” in line with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s announcement on July 29.

IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said he expects the Illinois Department of Health to approve the plan, but cautioned that all matters of high school sports remain fluid.

“Changes may come, and if they do, we will be agile while putting safety and students first,” Anderson said. “It was important that we provide a framework today for our student-athletes, coaches, administrators and officials to begin preparing for the 2020-21 school year.”

Boys and girls golf, boys and girls cross country, girls tennis, and girls swimming and diving will proceed in the fall, as they normally do. The other fall sports — football, girls volleyball and boys soccer — will move to spring. The IDPH has classified football as “higher risk” and girls volleyball and boys soccer as “medium risk.” The other fall sports are “lower risk.”

Practices can officially begin Aug. 10 and the fall season will conclude Oct. 24, roughly one month sooner than it typically ends.

The winter sports will be unchanged, with boys and girls basketball, boys and girls bowling, wrestling, girls gymnastics, cheer and dance in session from Nov. 16 to Feb. 13.

Spring will go from Feb. 15 to May 1 and will feature the three fall sports along with boys and girls water polo, badminton and boys gymnastics.

Baseball, softball, boys and girls track and field, boys and girls lacrosse, girls soccer, boys volleyball and boys tennis will play on a summer schedule from May 3 to June 26.

The plan provides at least a template for getting high school athletics going again amid a pandemic that has shut them down since March.

Sandburg girls cross country coach Tony Pena said his team is excited about getting the IHSA’s go-ahead. He and his coaching staff had “very blunt conversations” with their runners about the possibility the season could be moved to spring or canceled, he added.

“The girls understood that fall sports were in a very precarious situation,” Pena said. “The IHSA scheduled their decision to be made the afternoon before our final day of camp; a number of girls had planned to wear black the last day of camp for a symbolic funeral to our season. Now that we have the green light to start we will stay optimistic that we can complete the season in its entirety.”

Pena said felt a sense of relief for his seniors.

“We have a great group of seniors that have spent the previous three years establishing a team culture of consistency, hard work and relationships,” he said. “The seniors deserve this opportunity.”

Among the most notable changes is that football — a harbinger of autumn and a sport that progresses parallel to the season’s passage into winter — will be played as leaves are sprouting on trees. Moving fall sports to spring will necessitate that coaches and players adjust to some degree to accommodate and acclimate to the change, but bumping those sports forward two seasons is better than the alternative.

“Everyone was concerned about whether or not there would be a season, but at the end of the day, it’s more about the safety and well-being of everyone involved,” said Stagg football coach Colt Nero. “Spring has to be the best alternative right now because it’s the safest option given the uncertainty of COVID.

“It won’t necessarily change our approach as our players have already changed their mindset to the spring and are motivated. We will continue to work on the mental side of football and work on getting our guys back into the weight room to build their bodies up in preparation for the spring.”

Nero said his players expressed some disappointment about football moving to spring, but that they’ve moved forward and are excited about eventually playing.

“They are itching to get back into the weight room to get their bodies ready for the spring season,” he said. “

Chicago Christian football coach Nick Cook said he expected the season to be delayed.

“The spring plan that the IHSA came up with, I do feel was as close to a best-case scenario for football considering all factors,” Cook said. “Hopefully, our governor has out-smarted the majority of those around us who have a different interpretation of the science available; only time will tell. No matter how the fall experiment turns out, I’m confident our kids will respond with the same resilience they have shown all along as we get ready for the spring season.”

Brother Rice football coach Brian Badke said his team will use the additional time they’ll have to prepare for a spring season to their advantage.

“The players have worked so hard and they are frustrated like all of us to not be able to play right now.” He said. “This past year has been unprecedented, still a lot of unknowns; but control what you can control and take this an opportunity to get better and to be around each during the offseason could be a special time for all of us to improve and get better as team.”

 

Coaches react
The following is more of what some of our area coaches had to say about the IHSA’s decision and how it could affect their programs and high school athletes.

 

Nick Cook, Chicago Christian football
On his players’ responses to the news:

“The response has been phenomenal. They, and all of us are obviously disappointed that the fall and football will not go together for the first time in any of our lifetimes; but we build our program on principles like those found in Philippians 4:12-13 in the Bible, and our kids have displayed that type of mature, contentment in responding to all COVID adversity with resilience, goals and an overall great attitude.”

On the possibility of players choosing not to play in spring:

“We don’t believe this will be a big issue for us. Too much investment from returning players, too many goals. Our seniors our hungry to play together one last time, and I don’t anticipate many of our young guys turn lazy on us and choosing to just walk the halls in the spring as there won’t be much else for them to do athletically at our school unless they were making a sport changes.”

 

Tony Pena, Sandburg girls cross country
On whether the COVID-19 safety measures affected runners’ preparation for the season:

“As the March quarantine continued into April it became apparent that we would not see the completion of the track season, and it was quite likely there would be no summer cross country camp. The girls knew the onus would be on them to get work done without the supervision of coaches and without the benefits of a team. Our girls were amazing at getting their work done away from coaches and on their own… it was apparent that first week of (summer) camp (beginning July 10) that the girls had put in the necessary work on their own.”

On whether the Eagles’ runners are behind where they would normally be at this point:

“Absolutely not. In fact, in the oddest of summers this will be the most fit we have ever entered a season. This is my fourth summer with the team and it is by far the best summer of training and commitment we have had.”

On whether he foresees this season being different than it would under normal circumstances:

“Absolutely. Totally different schedule, smaller meets, masks, social distancing, possibly no state series, 75% of students at home all day, and I’m sure there are many that I am missing including the possibility of one of our athletes being diagnosed with COVID-19 or someone within their family or within their social bubble or a classmate. A cloud of uncertainty will likely hang over us all season. Things will definitely be different, but I am confident it will still be an enjoyable and rewarding experience for all of our girls.”

 

Ron Dawczak, Marist football
On his reaction to the news:

“I was thrilled with the decision made by the IHSA. I want to play football as much as any coach in the state, but only under conditions that don’t jeopardize the health and safety of our players and their families at home. If the decision was made to try to play a normal fall schedule, I believe we would have had to suspend play within a few weeks.

“I was definitely afraid football season could be canceled. I was worried the season might be delayed a month. I think that would have been equivalent to cancelling the season.

On the challenges of preparing players for a spring season:

“Having football in the spring will bring a unique set of challenges in terms of how to best prepare the team. Normally, summer football ends in late July and the kids get around two weeks off to rest their bodies before the season begins. Considering every coach in the state is going through this for the first time, no one knows exactly how to best prepare their team for the new schedule. It will be fun trying to figure out how to navigate the new schedule trying to get the team ready for football in February.”

“Probably the biggest downside to playing in the spring is the delay in exposure for the seniors who will be looking to play football in college. These players were unable to showcase their skills and make a name for themselves at college camps over the summer. My hope is that the NCAA moves signing day back a few months to allow for college coaches to scout players who will be playing in the spring. There are a lot of other states besides Illinois that have moved football to the spring, so I hope the NCAA adjusts their policies accordingly.”

 

Tony Sheehan, Richards football
On his reaction to the news:

We all know this is a different time. With that being said, I am happy the IHSA came up with an alternative plan then just canceling the season. No plan would be perfect ,and as teachers and coaches we are always talking about and teaching how to deal with adversity. This is just another chance to teach our kids nothing is perfect in this world. We need to adapt, accept and enhance how we handle situations.”

On the challenges of preparing players for a spring season:

“It is going to be different. We hope to be able to get some contact days after Labor Day and to be able to get in the weight room once the kids are back in school. There is always a chance that things can change and go fully remote; if so this will be a challenge. We will be back to expecting the kids to work out on their own.”

On whether moving football to spring could be detrimental to his players’ recruitment chances:

“This could hurt some, yes. But, I hope coaches understand and will be able to evaluate our seniors. We will have to see if the NCAA changes any of their calendar. This could help everyone out.”

 

Brian Badke, Brother Rice football
On his players’ responses to the news:

“Obviously, not having a fall season is disappointing, but having a plan in place for the spring is sign of hope for our players and an opportunity to compete this season.”

On whether moving football to spring could be detrimental to his players’ recruitment chances:

“I don’t think it will affect them too much. The college coaches will need to adjust, maybe offer a little later than usual; but also will need to rely more on the high school coaches evaluation, more so since some of them won’t have film from last year or the fall season.

 

Colt Nero, Stagg football
On whether moving football to spring could be detrimental to his players’ recruitment chances:

“We are going to need to make adjustments in order to make sure that the individuals that want to play in college are still getting exposure. We are going to have to be very aggressive in this approach and not rely on film. We will need to be reaching out to make sure that those individuals’ names are on scouts’ radars.”

 

 

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Nazareth rally celebrates fourth state football championship

Sophomore quarterback Logan Malachuk is congratulated by Nazareth Principal Therese Hawkins on Monday. He scored two touchdowns and threw for two more to be named Player of the Game after a thrilling 45-44 win over Peoria earned the Class 5A state title on Nov. 26.

By Steve Metsch

Two huge cheers rocked the Rooney Student Center at Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park late Monday morning.

The first was when Zach Hayes – joined by the coaches and teammates – walked in carrying the IHSA Class 5A state football championship trophy high over his head.

The second was when school principal Therese Hawkins made a special announcement.

“As you know, it’s a great tradition here at Nazareth Academy that when we have a state championship team in the house, we also have an extra day off,” she said.

Feb. 17 will be a day without school, she said, as the student body of 740 roared its approval.

When one considers there were only 13 seniors on this roster, another day off may be coming soon as state titles are also getting synonymous with Nazareth football.

The Roadrunners won a championship for the fourth time in the past nine seasons. Nazareth is now 4-2 in football title games.

The Roadrunners beat Peoria in a 45-44 thriller on Saturday at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium for their first title since 2018.

Head Coach Tim Racki, who won four straight state titles at Driscoll, thanked the parents, students, band, cheerleaders, poms, teachers and administration for their support.

Now 8-2 overall in title games, Racki said he’s humbled by accolades, adding it wouldn’t be possible with the assistant coaches he considers “some of the best in the state.”

“In terms of where we were at, there was never a doubt,” he deadpanned.

Nazareth became the first football team in state history to start a season 2-4 and win it all.

“The resiliency is something I’ve never experienced as a head coach,” Racki said.

The Roadrunners reeled off eight straight wins after that start.

“The destination is always wonderful, but, man, I can’t tell you how sad I am that this journey has concluded,” Racki said.

“I’m so proud and incredibly blessed to be surrounded by these young men and especially the seniors whom I’ll never forget,” he said. “Gentlemen, I love you.”

One of those seniors is Hayes, the team’s captain chair, whose interception in the closing moments sealed the victory.

Hayes said the team appreciated the support from the fans, credited the coaches for their hard work, and thanked his teammates who worked hard all year.

“This team means everything to me. … To see that we came out on top is so rewarding,” Hayes said. “I know each and every one of us sitting in those chairs would do anything for the guy next to him. That’s why I love Naz.”

Senior running back, receiver and defensive back Justin Taylor, a Wisconsin recruit, thanked “my brothers” and the coaches “for all the time you sacrificed for us.”

After the ceremony, Racki said he sensed something special was brewing after an emotional talk with the team then 2-4.

“I worked my tail off at motivation and leadership. I pretty much emptied my tool box. I told them, ‘Guys, I don’t know what else to say. Now it’s time for you to lead.’ From that moment on, we started growing,” Racki said.

“You develop that grit, that toughness. And they started believing.”

He refrained from comparing this title with his other seven. But he did praise the team’s focus, saying, “when you’re 2-4, it’s easy to tank.”

Sophomore quarterback Logan Malachuk, named Player of the Game after rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for two more, said “words can’t express how happy I am right now.”

“I believed we always had a shot because this team showed so much potential. And, of course, we’re so young. We had a lot of learning to do,” he said.

He praised the Nazareth defense that stopped running back Malachi Washington on a key two-point conversion late in the game.

“They came up big when we needed them. It’s that one play. And Zach’s pick as well. It’s the resilience. I’m super proud of them,” Malachuk said.

Washington – whom Racki called “the best running back I’ve seen in years” – carried 48 times for 289 yards. His six touchdowns tied a state record.

Before the football celebration, Nazareth’s girl sports were recognized for going downstate this fall in volleyball, tennis, golf and cross-country.

On a personal note, Racki coached the title game with a heavy heart.

Brother-in-law Flavio Gentile died suddenly on Nov. 23 from a bacterial infection in his blood, Racki said.

Gentile had played quarterback in high school at Fenwick.

“He was a huge football fan and supporter of mine since I was at Driscoll,” Racki said. “I knew he’d want me to lock in and take care of these kids. And that’s what I did. I knew he was with me the entire way.”

Nazareth started the year with a 2-0 shutout of state runner-up Kankakee in La Grange Park, and ended it with a wild 45-44 shootout.
Keith Lukes, the Roadrunners’ defensive coordinator, said the big scoring difference was attributable to the hard-to-stop Washington and Peoria’s depth.
“He was great. They had very few two-way guys. I think their brand of football, with the size they had upfront, with him running as effectively as he did, it kind of wore on us. We had a bunch of guys going both ways (on offense and defense) and they wore us down,” he said.
An outside bltz stopped Washington from scoring a two-point conversion that would have given Peoria a 46-45 lead late.
“We sent an outside blitz on that play. Finn O’Meara and Braden Ferguson were the two guys on the tackle. And we had the pick late,” Lukes said.
He was surprised Peoria stuck with its unconventional approach of kicking on-side every kick off. But he was pleased with the results.
“This wsa the first game we saw on film and maybe the entire season where they didn’t recover at least one on-side kick. From the punt side, they only punted nine times the entire year. In our game, they punted four times. So we were doing something different,” Lukes said.

Nazareth Head Coach Tim Racki won his eighth state championship, four of them with the Roadrunners, on Nov. 26 in Champaign.

Orland Park man wins Turkey Trot; St. Laurence runner takes women’s title

By Jeff Vorva
Staff Writer

The number 19 meant good things on Thanksgiving morning.

The top two finishers in the 34th running of the Orland Park Turkey Trot had “19” as part of the number on their bibs.

Brandon Lukas, 25, of Orland Park, wore No. 7519 and took first place with a time of 14:6.6 seconds in the 2.5 mile run near Orland Park Village Hall.

Orland Park resident Brandon Lukas won the 34th Turkey Trot on held the morning of Thanksgiving. Photo by Jeff Vorva

Robbie Sieczkowski, 23, of Orland Park, wore 7819 and finished second in 14:26.5.

Luis Lopez, 17, of Chicago, and Mario Lopez, 25, of Orland Park, finished third and fourth, respectively, while Daniel Dominick, 38, of Frankfort, rounded out the top five.

In the women’s division, St. Laurence runner Jadie Chavez, 17, of Chicago, took first place with a time of 17:21.8. Krysta Stanko, 17, of Orland Park, Bryn Dolan 28, of Brooklyn, Grace Wille, 20, of Orland Park, and Megan Kobza, 34, of Tinley Park, rounded out the top five.

Lukas is a former Sandburg runner who never ran in the Turkey Trot before.

“I just wanted to go out there and see what I could do,” he said.

Outside of running, Lukas is a sensation in the classroom. He is working on his PhD in bioinfomatics at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

He said he ran the Chicago Half Marathon earlier this year.

St. Laurence junior Jadie Chavez holds her first prize of a frozen turkey for being the Orland Park Turkey Trot’s female champion. Photo by Jeff Vorva

Chavez said she has won her age group in the past but never was the overall women’s champion. Her family makes it a tradition to run in the Orland Park event every year.

“I was actually sick so I was stressing out about running it,” she said. “But I’m OK now.”

The Vikings junior finished 137th in the IHSA Class 2A state meet at Detweiler Park in Peoria in November.

A record 1,000 runners signed up for the Turkey Trot and 887 finished the race.

In the men’s age group divisions, Orland Park’s Oskar Kwiatek won 9-under, Manteno’s Benjamin Frieschle won 10-14, Luis Lopez won 15-19, Sieczkowski won 20-14, Lukas won 25-29, Sioux Fall South Dakota’s Adam Saban won 30-34 and Dominik won 35-39.

Also, Mokena’s Dan Woods won 40-44, Tinley Park’s Brian O’Donnell won 45-49, Orland Park’s Jim Delisa won 50-54, Homewood’s Rich Matula won 55-59, Orland Park’s Kevin Germino won 60-64, Plainfield’s Mark Eichelberger won 65-69 and Tinley Park’s Charlie Tarjan won 70-over.

In the women’s age group divisions, Orland Park’s Nora Dubois won 9-under, Orland Park’s Colleen Noone won 10-14, Chavez won 15-19, Wille won 20-24, Dolan won 25-29, Kobza won 30-34 and Jacksonville, North Carolina’s Terri Piekosz claimed 35-39.

Also, Mokena’s Kelly Lynn won 40-44, Palos Hills’ Laura Lipkie won 45-49, Bolingbrook’s Katrina Clark won 50-54, Willowbrook’s Denise Poremba won 55-59, Orland Park’s Janet Marks won 60-64, Frankfort’s Joan Sullivan won female 65-69 and Orland Park’s Paula Scheiwe won 70-over.

A pair of runners get into the spirit of the Orland Park Turkey Trot race. Photo by Jeff Vorva

Area Sports Roundup: Orland Park Pioneers honored; local hoops teams win Thanksgiving tourney titles

By Jeff Vorva
Staff Writer

Two youth football teams teams were honored by the Orland Park Village Board for winning Super Bowl championships in their respective divisions.

The Orland Park Pioneers’ varsity and super lightweight players received awards and recognition Nov. 21 from the board and Mayor Keith Pekau, who has the distinction of playing Pioneer football in the organization’s first year in 1976.

Todd Shelton and Chris Stefanos shared the head coaching duties for the varsity team. They were assisted by Bill Sigel, Jason Buechele, Jack Shelton, Jim Rodriguez and Pat Clifton.

The varsity team has gone 32-1 over the past three seasons and 22-0 the previous two campaigns. It was a three-time River Valley Super Bowl champ and a Wednesday Night Super Bowl winner.

Varsity members include Brody Wantroba, Toddy Shelton, Ethan Krueger, Barret Sigel, Nolan Rodriguez, Jordan Masino, Chase Czerwonka, Jake Tomczak, Jack Clifton and Matthew Durkin.

Also on the roster are Jake Buechele, Devin Stefanos, Quinn Durkin, Jake Drew, Carson Conrad, Sean Ruisz, Henry Selof, Briggs Corona, Zayne Salah and Jad Jaber.

Others include Egan Kelly, Kendall McDowell, Luke Kruszynski, Cade Koehler, Jax Arocho, Nolan Torgerson, Logan Kondziolka, Taylor McDoniel, Cash Phillips and Othman Mizyed.

Rounding out the team are Will Beeler, Adam Danko, Mohammad Ghadban, Ibrahim Jaffal, Shafik Yasin, Rami Agha, David Klimaszka, Blake Wagner, Rocco McCarthy, Stephen Caxton-Idowu and Keegan Kirk.

The super lightweights, coached by Al Krokos and assistants Pat Richardson, Adam Sutter, Ray Morandi, Matt Wilkinson, Chuck Kakos and Mark Garrity, became the first team in Pioneer history to win both a River Valley Championship and a Wednesday Night Championship during the same season.

Members of the super lightweight squad include Thomas Sutter, Jack DuBois, Taylan Morandi, Zane Judeh, Blake Schuler, Luke Krokos, Cole Baldridge, Austin Flynn, Zachariah Ballouta and Jase Enstrom.

Also on the roster are Vincent Spizzirri, Wyatt Kipper, Cayden Caldwell, Carter Erwin, Ellis Hubbard, Michael O’Connor, Lucca Morandi, Jason Erwin, Noah Cordoba and Christopher Medina, Jr.

Others on the squad are Shane Sternberg, Andrew Richardson, Jordan Ulaszek, Gavin Garrity, Arthur Slabenak, Anthony LaPapa, Christian Paulsen, Scott Gumienny, Frank Wilkinson and Laith Hammami.

Rounding out the team are Cody Godlewski, Nick Pomonis, Yousef Yasin, James Okrasinski, Nolan Burke, Aaron McCarthy, Michael Ordman, Thomas Richardson, Nathan Campos, Jude Morrar, Rayder Slabenak, Owen Garrity, Maximus Bauer and Adam Krokos.

The Orland Park Pioneers Super Lightweight team was honored at a recent Orland Park Village Board meeting. Photo by Jeff Vorva

 

Cornucopia of champions
The Oak Lawn boys basketball team shocked Mount Carmel, 76-68, on Nov. 25 to win the Spartan/Ram Classic. The Spartans’ Xavier Sulaiman was the tournament MVP and teammate Ayham Salah made the all-tournament team.

Evergreen Park won the Lisle Thanksgiving Tournament. Nolan Sexton and Ulises Cardenas were named to the all-tournament team.

Marist won the District 218 Thanksgiving Tipoff Classic with a 61-50 win over Richards on Nov. 25. Kaden White led the RedHawks with 13 points.

Brother Rice won the Bill VandeMerkt Classic at Riverside-Brookfield. Ahmad Henderson was the tournament MVP and teammates Tre Dowdell and Khalil Ross were on the all-tournament team.

Lyons won its own tournament with a 58-51 triumph over Lincoln-Way East. Penn recruit Niklas Polonowski had 22 points for the Lions.

 

Milestones
Saint Xavier’s Maia Fawcett hit the 1,000-point mark in an 83-48 win over Waldorf on Nov. 25. She is the 22nd player in Cougars women’s basketball history to hit that mark.

Former Argo and Morton College player Tadrianna Heard recently scored her 1,000th collegiate point for Purdue Northwest.

 

King-sized honor
Longtime Lyons wrestling coach Mark King was recently honored by having his name attached to the school’s wrestling accomplishment board. It is now known as the Mark King Wall of Fame.

King has served as a head coach or assistant for 50 years.

Football Class 5A State Championship: Roadrunners win shootout for fourth state title

By Jeff Vorva
Staff Writer

Nazareth opened the season in August with a 2-0 win over Kankakee.

It closed the season the afternoon of Nov. 26 with a 45-44 win over Peoria at Memorial Stadium in Champaign to take the IHSA Class 5A state championship.

In between was a rollercoaster of wins and losses and a scramble just to make the playoffs.

“This was appropriate for these guys — nothing came easy,” Nazareth coach Tim Racki said after the one-point victory. “If it wasn’t for that [win over Kankakee] with the safety, we wouldn’t be here right now. I was out of my mind after this game because it was an incredible game.”

To win their fourth state title, the Roadrunners (10-4) competed in a game in which the teams combined for 89 points, 140 plays and 846 yards. Nazareth had to deal with Peoria monster running back Malachi Washington, who carried the ball 48 times for 275 yards and six touchdowns.

After Washington’s final score with 5:15 left in the game to pull the Lions (12-2) to within 45-44, he was met by Roadrunners sophomore Gabe Kaminski, senior Braden Ferguson and senior Finn O’Meara inches away from the goal line on the two-point conversion attempt. That turned out to be huge.

“I followed out defensive coordinator [Keith Lukes’] plan, Kaminski said. “He’s an incredible coach and we just followed through on his plan.”

Nazareth’s Finn O’Meara (left), Gabe Kaminski (center) and Braden Ferguson (right) stop Peoria running back Malachi Washington just short of the goal line on a key two-point conversion attempt during the Class 5A state championship game on Nov. 26. Photo by Jeff Vorva

Peoria had one more possession to try to take the lead, but it was dashed with 59 seconds left on a Zach Hayes interception.

“I made a break on the ball, I secured it and the feelings that just rushed through my head…I mean…I can’t believe it,” Hayes said after the game. “I’m still in shock. This is all I have ever wanted. And to make the interception to secure it is surreal.”

Justin Taylor led the Roadrunners with 108 yards on 17 carried and a touchdown. Sophomore quarterback Logan Malachuk threw for 245 yards and touchdown passes to Hayes and Edward McClain, Jr. and ran for two more scores. James Penley had four catches for 102 yards.

Brendan Flanagan added the final touchdown with 6:19 left in the game and Malachuk found Penley for what turned out to be the game-winning two-point conversion.

Peoria came into the game averaging 50 points per game with six games of 62 points or more. That included a 76-56 victory over Morris in the semifinals on Nov. 19.

Nazareth opened the season 2-4 – with losses to Lemont, Marist, Notre Dame, Carmel and St. Rita — and needed to run the table to get to the playoffs. The Roadrunners beat Leo, Montini and Benet to qualify for the postseason.

Once in the playoffs, Nazareth rolled over Glenbard South (48-22), Rockford Boylan (38-13) and Morgan Park (29-0) before surviving a tight 10-7 victory over Sycamore to get to Champaign.

Nazareth sophomore quarterback Logan Malachuk throws for what turned out to be the game-winning two-point conversion in a 45-44 state championship win over Peoria. Photo by Jeff Vorva

“When we were 2-4, it was kind of quiet in the office and one of my assistants mentioned something about playoffs and I gave the best Jim Mora imitation. I just busted out laughing saying ‘Playoffs?!!?’ Everybody kind of got a kick out of it,” Racki said.

“We were just wondering how we were going to get into the playoffs. Let’s just work on win No. 3 first.”

The Roadrunner roster features just 13 seniors, and many underclassmen had their hands in this state championship. But there were growing pains early.

“Overall, we are a young team and it’s hard for kids and college players and even NFL players to go through a losing streak like that,” Racki said. “It’s difficult to maintain your confidence, faith, hope and keeping everything together. I was consistent with pointing out what we were doing well. I didn’t beat them up. They felt bad enough losing.

“Sure enough, once we started growing each day and we got that third win and fourth and fifth, you could see the confidence and the improvement in our play and our execution, and it just took off.”

Racki never imagined early on this team would bring home a championship, but felt pretty good after beating Sycamore in the semifinals.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I was kind of in shock. It was a joy to see the kids after all of the adversity that they went through to be rewarded to a trip to Champaign.”

And a state title.

Nazareth players celebrate their Class 5A football title with fans and members of the band on Nov. 26. Photo by Jeff Vorva

Strong second half lifts Mount Carmel over St. Rita for trip to 7A title game

By Steve Millar
Correspondent

After the Mount Carmel offense was shut out in the first half by St. Rita in the teams’ IHSA Class 7A semifinal, Caravan coach Jordan Lynch remained confident his offense would get going on a cold, windy night.

“It was just a matter of time,” Lynch said. “Penalties were killing us, dropped passes. We needed to stick to the script. We talked about how coming on the road, you can’t try to do too much.

“Thankfully, the defense played their butts off, kept us in the game and gave us a chance.”

Senior quarterback Blainey Dowling made just enough plays in the second half, connecting on a pair of touchdown passes to Denny Furlong, and the Caravan defense did the rest as the Caravan rallied for a 20-9 win over the rival Mustangs on Nov. 19.

Mount Carmel advanced to take on Batavia (10-3) in the 7A state championship game set for 4 p.m. Saturday at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

The Caravan is after the program’s 14th state title and first since 2019.

Mount Carmel (13-0) beat St. Rita (10-3) for the second time this year, including a 35-3 win in the season opener.

“We just all came together as a team, believed in one another and got it done,” Furlong said.

The Mustang defense frustrated the Caravan in the first half and the latter’s high-powered passing attack was not quite clicking. Dowling completed just four of his first 14 pass attempts and was 7-for-17 in the opening half.

He got going, however, on the first drive of the third quarter, hitting Furlong for a 10-yard pass and Damarion Arrington for a 25-yard pass to set up a 21-yard touchdown strike to Furlong.

“That drive gave us really good momentum on offense,” Furlong said. “And the defense came out and held them to three field goals.”

Alabama recruit Conor Talty hit field goals from 36, 27 and 23 yards for St. Rita, which led 9-7 after three quarters.

Mount Carmel turned the game around for good with two touchdowns in a 49-second span midway through the fourth quarter.

Dowling and Furlong hooked up again for a 13-yard score with 6:18 left in the game. Two plays later, Arrington intercepted a Jett Hilding pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown.

Just like that, the Caravan had a 20-9 lead.

“We’ll always have the offense’s back no matter what,” Arrington said. “Every game, we’ll have their back.”

Danny Novickas added a game-sealing interception in the final minutes. Bobby Medina had a fumble recovery, a sack and a tackle for loss for the Caravan defense.

“The offense was struggling,” Dowling said. “We got some touchdowns in the second half. But defense wins championships. Those guys stepped up big time. Damarion Arrington gets that pick six and that changed the game. He’s a big-time player.”

Dowling finished 16 of 31 passing for 221 yards. Furlong had seven catches for 123 yards.

For St. Rita, DJ Stewart was a workhorse, carrying the ball 34 times for 136 yards. The Mustangs were held to 23 yards passing.

Zack Clark and Keyandre White had interceptions for the Mustangs.

The loss was the final game of St. Rita coach Todd Kuska, who is retiring after 25 years as a head coach.

“I told the seniors to come from where we started to where we now, who would have thought we would have been in this game against Mount Carmel after the way the first game went against them?” Kuska said. “It shows how far we’ve come, and these guys just kept working hard to get better to get to this point and have a chance in a game like this. We just came up a little short.”

Area Sports Report: Nazareth finishes run to Class 5A state title game

By Jeff Vorva
Staff Writer

Nazareth has played in five state championship football games.

But the Roadrunners never took a road this bumpy to get there.

After opening the season 1-3 and at one point being 2-4, they had to run the table just to make it to the playoffs.

Mission accomplished. They beat Leo, Montini and Benet to squeeze out an 11th-seed out of 16 teams in the Class 5A North bracket.

They needed four more wins to get to the title game.

Mission accomplished again, as Nazareth beat Rockford Boylan, Morgan Park and top-seeded Sycamore, 10-7, the latter victory coming on the road Nov. 19.

The Roadrunners (9-4) take on Peoria (12-1) at 10 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. They will be gunning for their fourth state championship.

Zach Hayes’ 33-yard field goal in the second quarter and his 7-yard touchdown reception from Logan Malachuk in the fourth quarter helped Nazareth pull off the win. Hayes also kicked the extra point and had an interception on defense.

Peoria had an offensive explosion in its 76-56 victory over Morris in the other semifinal game. The teams’ combined point total is the 12th-highest scoring game in IHSA history.

 

ROADRUNNING TO THE TITLE GAME

A look at Nazareth’s state title games:

YEAR CLASS SCORE SITE

2014 6A Nazareth 26, Lemont 7 Champaign

2015 5A Nazareth 42, LW West 21 DeKalb

2017 6A Prairie Ridge 28 Nazareth 21 DeKalb

2018 7A Nazareth 31, St. Charles N. 10 Champaign

2019 7A Mount Carmel 37, Nazareth 13 DeKalb

 

Cougars win
Several area college teams were involved in national tournaments last week.

Saint Xavier’s women’s volleyball team (24-8) knocked off Central Methodist in the NAIA Opening Round 15-25, 18-25, 25-21, 29-27, 15-9 on Nov. 20 in Fayette, Missouri. The Cougars will play in the 24-team National Championship Tournament that begins Nov. 30. They will open against Eastern Oregon at 10 a.m. and follow up with a 10 a.m. battle with Cornerstone.

Against Central Methodist, senior Chloe Memenga had 19 kills and 16 digs, senior Molly Hackett slammed down 17 kills and sophomore setter Kaleigh Ritter added a season-high 51 assists.

 

Cougars lose
The Cougars football team had a rougher time of it Saturday with a 41-7 setback against Marian (Indiana) in the NAIA Championship Series First Round in Indianapolis.

Stuart Ross hit Amari Venerable for a 20-yard touchdown strike to knot the game at 7-7 with 8:27 left in the half, but Marian went on to score 34 straight. SXU finished the season 9-3.

 

More national matters
Moraine Valley Community College’s women’s volleyball team went 0-2, dropping a pair of five-set heartbreakers in the National Junior College Athletic Association in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Freshman Brooklyn Condon had 34 kills in the two matches while Shepard grad Kaila Butvilas added 21.

Morton College made it to the NJCAA Men’s Soccer finals and ran into an old foe in the championship game.

Skyway Conference foe Prairie State beat Morton, 1-0, at the Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, Arizona to finish 19-1-1. During the regular season, Morton beat Prairie State 4-3 on Sept. 13 and 2-1 in overtime in overtime on Nov. 6.

Former Sandburg and Notre Dame distance runner Dylan Jacobs, now at Tennessee, finished fourth in the NCAA National Cross Country meet with a time of 28:58 in the 10K race in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

 

St. Laurence bows out

The Vikings football team was eliminated from the Prep Bowl playoffs with a 30-18 loss to Fenwick in the semifinals on Nov. 17.

Vinny Enoch and Tommy Fus had touchdown runs and Evan Les threw a TD pass to Kaden McHugh for the Vikings (4-7).

 

Wright sticks with Stars

Arin Wright, a defender who has been with the Chicago Red Stars since 2015, re-signed with the club for a two-year deal.

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