With the Nazareth Academy High School football team trailing by 31 points at halftime Friday at Joliet Catholic Academy, senior Chris Simmons and his teammates searched for answers.
“We talked about how we should be more hyped up. The energy on the sidelines was really low,” Simmons said. “We didn’t come out as aggressively as we did during practice. (Nazareth coach Tim Racki) said to slow the game down, be ourselves and just do our thing.”
The Roadrunners nearly responded with one of the greatest comebacks in program — and arguably IHSA — history.
They scored four unanswered touchdowns to close to 31-28 with 8:50 left and again came within three points in the final minute before falling 38-35 in the East Suburban Catholic Conference showdown.
Quarterback Carson Bartels passed for five touchdowns and 380 yards for the Roadrunners (5-2, 3-2 in ESCC). Two TD passes went to Simmons (18 and 83 yards) with others to Notre Dame-bound Justin Love (86 yards), Justin Weller (20 yards) and Christian Davis (8 yards).
“I feel like that is the best half we’ve played as a team the four years I’ve been here,” Simmons said. “I feel like it’s reflective of the way we can play. It just showed what we can do and what we can improve on.”
Simmons caught a pass at the 30, eluded a defender and cut back for an 83-yard TD with 8:30 left.
Following the Roadrunners’ fourth-down defensive stop at their 18, Davis’ TD catch cut the deficit to three with 58 seconds left. The Hilltoppers (7-0, 5-0) recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
“In my career, I’ve never seen a team come back from a 31-point deficit. It takes a lot of football and attitude to get to the point where we were disappointed we didn’t pull it out,” Racki said. “If we do get in the playoffs, we have to have that same type of effort to make a (heckuva) run. I took a lot of positives out of the second half. We really grew up as a team.”
Nazareth closed to 31-21 after three quarters with TD passes to Weller on third-and-9 and Simmons on third-and-goal from the 18.
Joshua Oglesby’s interception return to the 10 set up Simmons’ TD. Love’s huge play opened the next offensive series after the Roadrunners forced a punt.
“We really stopped them on their first series (in the third quarter) and then defensively we came out and when they weren’t moving the ball, that sparked our offense,” Racki said.
Senior Michael Johnson, JCA’s leading rusher, was limited to just over 100 yards and one TD, but his sophomore cousin, Ke’Von Johnson, rushed for more than 210 yards and four TDs.
Ke’Von Johnson’s biggest plays may have come after Simmons’ second TD catch. Johnson returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to the 43 and scored from the 16 five plays later for a 38-28 JCA lead with 7:10 left.
“That (kickoff return) was all on me because we were doing a good job squibbing it,” Racki said. “I was thinking we had the momentum and I thought maybe we’d put it into the end zone or pin them deeper. I tell the kids I make just as many mistakes as they make.”