Nazareth football coach Tim Racki guided the Roadrunners to five state championship games in six years from 2014-19, winning two state titles and putting the school’s football program on the map.
But after a so-so showing during the pandemic-shortened season last spring and an
0-3 start to the 2021 campaign, it didn’t appear likely Nazareth would make much of a postseason splash, if any.
The Roadrunners responded to that adversity by winning five of their final six regular-season games to qualify for the Class 5A playoffs and on Nov. 13 will host Fenwick High School in the Class A state quarterfinals in LaGrange Park.
This has the makings of a classic as Fenwick’s talented squad meets a Roadrunners team that has enjoyed sustained postseason success in Tim Racki’s tenure as coach.
Here’s how the teams stack up against each other:
Like Fenwick, the Roadrunners have looked dominant this postseason, outscoring its first two opponents on the road 87-20.
Freshman Logan Malachuk took over at starting quarterback in Week 4 at Notre Dame and has displayed the poise of an upperclassman, completing nearly 62 percent of his passes while throwing for more than 1,500 yards. He’s allowed the rest of the offense to be successful, and Nazareth has talented players of its own including wide receiver Quentrell Harris and running backs Kaleb Miller (601 yards) and Peter Roll.
Miller also does a good job defensively with a team-high 85 tackles. The Roadrunners have also gotten good production from another freshman, Gabe Kaminski. He’s recorded 64 tackles (13 for a loss) and five sacks.
Fenwick High School will make its fifth appearance in the IHSA Class 5A state football quarterfinals, and the Friars’ diverse and dynamic offense is led by senior quarterback Kaden Cobb, a Ball State recruit who’s a threat with both his left arm and his legs.
He has plenty of targets in the passing game, including Bryan Hunt, Eian Pugh (Illinois) and Max Reese (Eastern Michigan). Fenwick can also get the job done on the ground as senior Jacque Walls (Minnesota State) has filled in nicely for the injured Danny Kent, rushing for a combined 302 yards in the first two playoff games.
If Kent, who made the All-Catholic League/ESCC White team this fall, can return from injury this weekend, it would give the Friars a huge boost in the backfield.
None of the offensive success is possible without a stout line, and Fenwick has one, led by center Jimmy Liston (Purdue) and right tackle Rasheed Anderson.
While most of the local media pay attention to the offense, the Friars’ defense is equally talented. Senior linemen Suieman Abuaqel, Aidan Vargas and Quin Wheaties are good disrupters up front. Twin brothers Conor Paris (linebacker) and Martin Paris (safety) have racked up plenty of tackles and fumble recoveries, and Walls and Den Juette are good shutdown cornerbacks.
One more weapon for Fenwick is senior kicker/punter Iain Ramage. He booted a key 42-yard field goal in the Friars’ 24-14 win at Rockford Boylan November 6 and also recorded an interception.
Nazareth will get a boost Saturday as this will be the team’s first home game of the playoffs. The Roadrunners are traditionally difficult to beat at Valenti Stadium in the postseason.
It’s certainly a difficult environment for Fenwick, but I like the Friars in what should be a close game. I believe that Fenwick has proven its mettle on the road this fall, defeating St. Ignatius 28-20 on Oct. 22 to clinch the CCL/ESCC White championship and hand the Wolfpack its only regular-season loss.
One area of concern I have for Fenwick is the number of penalties and turnovers. The Friars have committed numerous penalties and have given the ball away in each of its postseason wins, and against a team like the Roadrunners, that simply won’t do. Better discipline and ball control is a must.
On the other hand, the Roadrunners don’t have the depth and experience they have had in recent years when they made four state final games five out of six years between 2014 and 2019 and won state titles in 2015 and 2018. The home field advantage helps, but Nazareth is facing a team that has more experience and is also hungry for a state title of its own.
This should be a tight game, but big-time players make big-time plays on the big stage — and Fenwick vs. Nazareth in a state quarterfinal is certainly a big stage. If Cobb and the rest of the offense has their usual good efforts, the Friars should advance to the 5A semifinals.
Tate’s Take: Fenwick 28, Nazareth 21