Although the rematch wasn’t quite as remarkable as the first time Nazareth and Joliet Catholic Academy met this season, it certainly meant more to the Roadrunners.
Nazareth got the one it really wanted in a 35-21 win over visiting JCA on Saturday in the Class 5A quarterfinals.
On Oct. 10, JCA held on for a 38-35 victory after the Roadrunners rallied from a 31-0 halftime deficit.
From the start, Saturday’s game was tightly contested as both teams had their sights set on a 5A semifinals berth. Leading 21-14 at the half, Nazareth extended its lead to 28-14 when junior running back Ivory Kelly-Martin scored on a 4-yard touchdown.
JCA senior quarterback Cade Earl scored on a 1-yard run to pull the Hilltoppers closer at 28-21 with 6:19 left in the fourth quarter.
Senior running back Julian Love quickly regained the momentum for Nazareth on a 77-yard TD run out of the Wildcat formation. It was the first time the Roadrunners worked out of the Wildcat look this season.
“We’ve been practicing (Wildcat) for a couple weeks now and we weren’t sure when we were going to use it,” Love said. “I was begging for it because I knew it was something they hadn’t seen us do before. I thought we could really execute and dominate with it. We have so many weapons on every play that we call.”
According to Nazareth head coach Tim Racki, the opportunity to run the new wrinkle offensively was simply a matter of timing.
“We never had a reason to use (the Wildcat), but the right moment presented itself today,” Racki said. “Today was a great moment to open that package up. (Offensive coordinator) Casey Moran did an amazing job with it.”
While the Roadrunners’ focus is on this weekend’s semifinal against St. Laurence, the big picture possibility remains winning back-to-back state championships.
Nazareth defeated Lemont 26-7 in the 6A championship game last year.
“It’s a great feeling,” Love said. “Most of us have been here before and we know we’re so close. We’re breaking records here. We’re trying to build a dynasty and this win gets us one step closer to building that dynasty.”
As flashy as the Roadrunners are offensively with playmakers like Love, Kelly-Martin and quarterback Carson Bartels, the defense has been a big part of the team’s success as well.
That was the case once again against the Hilltoppers. Senior linebacker Blaine Bilek recovered a fumble in the Nazareth end zone to prevent a JCA touchdown at 9:51 of the fourth quarter.
The Roadrunners’ Christian Davis added a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown and Love tallied six tackles for loss.
“It just comes down to heart,” Love said. “Nobody plays a perfect game; you just give perfect effort. I just wanted to provide for my team since I knew this was my last game on this field so I really wanted to go out with a bang. I’m just trying to contribute any way I can to help this team. I love this team and would do anything for them.”
The versatile Love finished with nine carries for 111 yards and a TD and caught three passes for 95 yards. Bartels completed 12 of 19 passes for 185 yards and two TDs, including a 9-yard pass to Davis which put Nazareth on the scoreboard with 10 minutes to go in the first quarter.
Nazareth travels to Burbank on Saturday to face St. Laurence in a 5A semifinal. Kickoff is 1 p.m.