Two of the most successful high school football coaches in Illinois are Nazareth Academy's Tim Racki and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin's Ken Leonard.
When Racki's Roadrunners traveled to Springfield on Saturday, Nov. 11 to face Leonard's Cyclones, a highly competitive game was anticipated.
That was indeed the case as Nazareth survived Sacred Heart-Griffin's second-half comeback and prevailed 20-17 in an IHSA Class 6A quarterfinal. The Roadrunners (11-1) advance to a semifinal matchup at Providence. The Celtics crushed St. Laurence 49-24 in another quarterfinal matchup on Saturday.
"It was a very exciting game from start to finish," Racki said. "It was a very physical game and there were a lot of momentum shifts for both teams. Both sides made mistakes and turned the ball over at inopportune times, but luckily we capitalized more than they did."
Nazareth's defense played a large role in the victory, forcing four Cyclone turnovers, including three forced fumbles. Additionally, the Roadrunners' speed on defense virtually shut down Sacred Heart-Griffin's powerful running game as running backs Tremayne Lee and Brian Adams rushed for just 39 combined rushing yards on 26 carries.
The Roadrunners took advantage of the early Cyclone turnovers as Bobby Grimes booted field goals of 30 and 24 yards. In between the field goals, Devin Blakely (28 carries, 89 yards) scored on a 2-yard touchdown run. Michael Love chipped in 58 yards on seven carries.
Nazareth led 13-0 at the half and appeared to be in control.
However, the Roadrunners turned the ball over twice at the start of the second half to allow the Cyclones back into the game. First, Grimes (6-for-13, 100 passing yards) tossed an interception to Jared Viele, which set up Kyle Eguez's 24-yard field goal for Sacred Heart-Griffin. Then Blakely's fumble on the Roadrunners' next possession was recovered by the Cyclones on Nazareth's 13-yard line. That turnover led to Matt Brenneisen's TD run that brought the Cyclones to within 13-10 at the 7:40 mark of the third quarter.
Nazareth immediately regained the momentum on its next drive as wide receiver Michael Love - lining up at quarterback in the Wildcat formation - surprised the Cyclone defense with a 66-yard touchdown pass to David Oglesby. The play gave the Roadrunners a 20-10 lead.
"We've had that play for a while," Racki said. "We've been saving it for the right time, and (this game) was certainly the right time."
Then the special teams came up with a big play, blocking Eguez's 32-yard field goal attempt on the ensuing possession.
The Roadrunners' defense came up big again, forcing and recovering a Brenneisen fumble on its own 24-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Although the Roadrunners couldn't score on the ensuing drive, they chewed up over five minutes of the clock, which proved to be valuable.
With 3:19 left in the fourth quarter, Sacred Heart-Griffin quarterback Sam Sweetland connected with Spencer Redd on a 62-yard touchdown pass to bring the Cyclones within 20-17. But the Roadrunners recovered the onside kick and picked up a key first down that helped eat up most of the remaining time.
The Cyclones had one last shot at victory with 8.6 seconds left, but a desperation play failed giving the Roadrunners the impressive win.
A concern that arose from the victory is that Nazareth committed a bevy of penalties for a good amount of yardage. Going forward, Racki realizes that the Roadrunners can't have such a large amount.
"It comes down to self-discipline as you get deeper into the playoffs," he said. "Even though we're a great team, we're still a young team. Sometimes your emotions can get the best of you in those high-pressure moments. Some holding calls may have been questionable, but I was disappointed with the unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Those are unacceptable."
On a brighter note, Racki credited his defensive coaches for devising a plan to shut down two of the state's best running backs in Adams and Lee.
"My defensive staff did a great job of game-planning," he said. "We did a good job of containing (Adams and Lee). They did get some momentum in the third quarter, but overall slowing down their running game helped us."
The Roadrunners also pressured the quarterback with sacks by Isaiah Lee, Cameron Leach, Nate Lugo and Riley Theobald. Lee, Lugo and Diamond Evans each had a fumble recovery and Oglesby an interception.
Nazareth will go on the road again this week - albeit much closer to LaGrange Park - as the Roadrunners face Providence Catholic in New Lenox. The Celtics - one of three Catholic League Blue teams remaining in the state playoffs - feature a powerful running game led by Dashon Gavin and a physical defense. Providence squeaked into the playoffs with a 5-4 record, but has strung together three impressive wins over Richards, Normal West, and St. Laurence.
Considering that the Celtics play in one of the state's toughest conferences, the Roadrunners have another daunting task ahead of them to be sure. But according to Racki, any team that gets this far in the playoffs is deserving of being where they are.
"As you climb each round in the playoffs, it gets more difficult," Racki said. "All teams at this point are great teams, so it's going to be a great challenge."