Nazareth junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy is one of the top players in the country. The Michigan commit threw for 3,289 yards and 36 touchdowns last season. (File photo)

By winning three state titles plus a runner-up finish since 2014, the Nazareth Academy football team has already secured the sweetest one-word description in sports: dynasty.

Fresh off a 31-10 win against St. Charles North in the Class 7A state final last year, Nazareth appears primed for another run at state. The expectations are realistic based on the team’s roster and proven track record.

And yet for all of the Roadrunners’ well-publicized accolades, the secrets to their success involve intangibles like focus, selflessness and humility. In other words, they don’t buy into all the hype.

“We’re aware of the pitfalls of paying attention to all the preseason media coverage,” said coach Tim Racki, “especially when you really haven’t done anything yet. We also know that there’s a target on our back because of our past success and opponents want to take us out. It’s important for us to take zero weeks off and not get too high or too low. The focus needs to be in the present.”

While Racki has instilled that pragmatic approach as an integral part of the Roadrunners’ culture, media and fans can indulge in projecting the team’s sky-high potential.

The considerable optimism regarding Nazareth starts with quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Last year, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound junior passed for 3,289 yards, 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions while completing 72 percent of his passes. McCarthy, a Michigan commit, is ranked the No. 2 pro-style quarterback nationally and the top Illinois recruit in in the Class of 2021.

The rest of the offense is loaded with playmakers, including running backs Alex Carrillo (386 yards rushing in 2018) and Derrick Strongs (429 yards, 7 TD) and wide receivers Tyler Morris (22 catches) and Breven Reifsteck (25 catches).

“J.J. certainly gets his fair share of attention, but I think one thing people should look out for is our running game,” Racki said. “Alex is a great leader. Derrick was fast last year, but has put on muscle this year. When you factor in his explosion, vision and confidence, I think Derrick is going to open  a lot of eyes this season.”

Nazareth also welcomes a trio of transfers at wide receiver in 6-6 Landon Morris (from Hamilton Southeastern in Indianapolis), 6-5 Tanner Koziol (from Lake Park) and Billy O’Malley (from Hinsdale Central)

“We do things differently,” McCarthy said. “It’s really just a big family environment. We all hang out together so it’s easier when you have transfer guys like we do. They just become part of the family.”

Left tackle Ryan Keeler (6-5, 250) headlines a solid offensive line, along with Domenic Virelli and Jonathon Sarich.

Defensively, linebacker Marcus Griffin (49 tackles, including 4 sacks) leads an athletic group. 

“Marcus is such a great competitor,” coach Tim Racki said. “He’s like a high school version of [former Baltimore Ravens linebacker] Ray Lewis.”

Nose tackle CJ West (32 tackles, 2 sacks) plus cornerbacks Jailon Welch and Morris are other standouts.

“CJ is so talented. He could be an all-state offensive lineman but because of our depth, we just play him on defense,” Racki said. “Jailon is the fastest kid on the team and a lockdown corner for us. Tyler will help us everywhere on the field. He’s an incredible defender and just a special player.”

Nazareth will compete in the newly formed Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference, a super conference with six divisions. The Roadrunners landed in the CCL/ESCC Orange Division with Benet Academy, De La Salle and St. Laurence. 

“I’m really excited about the new conference. I think the merger is great,” said Racki, who recently attended a conference meeting at St. Patrick. “Both leagues have so many excellent programs with the same type of values.”

While Nazareth is the prohibitive favorite to win the CCL/ESCC Orange, one of the team’s toughest tests will take place against visiting Cardinal Ritter from St. Louis in the season opener. The Lions lost to Trinity Catholic in the 2018 Class 3 state finals of the Missouri High School state playoffs. 

“Cardinal Ritter is the real deal. It’s a great challenge for us to open the season,” Racki said. “The magic number for us is 6, 7, 8 or 9. We need one of those numbers [in wins] to get into the playoffs. Obviously, the more wins we have will give us a better seed.”

Nazareth Roadrunners at a glance

Head coach: Tim Racki

Last season (2018): 13-1 overall record; Defeated St. Charles North 31-10 in Class 7A state final (for third state championship in five years)

Top players: J.J. McCarthy QB, JR; Alex Carrillo RB/DB, SR; Marcus Griffin LB/RB, SR; Tyler Morris WR/DB, SO; CJ West DL, SR; Jailon Welch DB/WR, SR

Newcomers to watch: Landon Morris WR, JR; Tanner Koziol WR, JR; Billy O’Malley WR, JR

Outlook: The defending state champs in 7A return as one of the best teams in Illinois yet again. Led by a dynamic quarterback in McCarthy and experienced team leaders like Carrillo and Griffin, the sky’s the limit for the Roadrunners this season.