Nazareth quarterback Logan Malachuk rolls out looking for a receiver against Fenwick in an IHSA Class 5A quarterfinal game in LaGrange Park on Nov. 13. The Roadrunners lost 28-17 to end their season with a 7-5 record. | Carol Dunning/Contributor

In recent years, the Nazareth Academy football team has been impossible to beat at Valenta Stadium during the postseason, so the Roadrunners entered their IHSA Class 5A quarterfinal matchup at home with Fenwick on Nov.13 feeling confident, having outscored its two previous opponents on the road 87-20.

But although the Roadrunners started well against the Friars, they couldn’t hold a first-quarter lead as their season ended with a 28-17 defeat.

“I thought we came out to a great start, but in the second quarter, it became a battle,” said Nazareth coach Tim Racki. “We had a couple of self-inflicted penalties, and Fenwick is a good team.”

After being stopped three-and-out on the game’s opening possession, Nazareth (7-5) scored on its second drive when freshman quarterback Logan Malachuk (11-of-25, 217 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT) connected with Justin Taylor (5 receptions, 154 yards, 2 TD) for a 44-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead. The Roadrunners raised their advantage to 10-0 on the next drive as Zack Hayes booted a 26-yard field goal.

“He’s a special quarterback,” Racki said of Malachuk. “Being in a quarterfinal game as a freshman, he grew up a lot this year.”

“Logan is like a little brother to me,” said Nazareth wide receiver Quentrell Harris, who had three receptions for 46 yards. “He came in when we needed a spark, and it’s because of him that we came this far.”

But in the second quarter Nazareth struggled to move the ball, and that allowed Fenwick (10-2) to get going offensively and gradually take control. Friars quarterback Kaden Cobb ran for a 6-yard touchdown and then threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Max Reese with 58 seconds left in the half to give Fenwick a 14-10 lead. Both scores came on fourth down, something that wasn’t lost on Racki.

“In playoff ball, it usually comes down to three to five plays, and Fenwick made them today,” he said.

Fenwick increased its lead to 21-10 early in the third quarter with another Cobb touchdown pass on fourth down, this one three yards to Pat Durkin. But Nazareth got back into the game on its next drive on a busted play.

From his 44, Malachuk fumbled the snap on a drop back, but immediately recovered and found a wide-open Taylor, who turned up field and took it to the house for a 56-yard touchdown. The play energized the Roadrunners and made the score 21-17 Fenwick at the 6:48 mark of the third quarter.

Nazareth running back Justin Taylor  (left) caught five passes for 154 yards , including two touchdown receptions of 44 and 56 yards, during the Roadrunners’ 28-17 state quarterfinal loss to Fenwick on Nov. 13 in LaGrange Park. | Carol Dunning/Contributor

“It was a designed play-action; I don’t know what happened in the backfield,” Taylor said. “I just saw the ball in the air and said it was for me. I got it and ran.”

After holding the Friars on the next drive, Nazareth got the ball back and moved into Fenwick territory as the quarter ended, thanks to a 14-yard run by Kaleb Miller and a 25-yard reception by Harris.

But on the first play of the fourth quarter, Fenwick defensive lineman Suieman Abuaqel picked off Malachuk’s screen pass and went the distance for a 58-yard touchdown that was a backbreaker.

“That happens to any quarterback. Logan shouldn’t be hard on himself,” Racki said. “He didn’t see the guy, and that can happen on screens.”

After Abuaqel’s interception, Nazareth committed a pair of holding penalties on its next possession that resulted in a punt. Then Fenwick went on a time-consuming drive that – although not resulting in any points – forced the Roadrunners to call all of their timeouts.

Nazareth got the ball back on its 8 with 3:28 left, but Malachuk’s interception to the Friars’ Den Juette effectively ended the game.

The Roadrunners’ usual offensive balance was disrupted as they rushed for only 61 yards against Fenwick’s run defense. For the game, Nazareth was outgained in total offense 367 to 278.

“They just stopped us,” Harris said.  “[Fenwick] wanted it more, and it came down to a couple of plays that mattered. We didn’t get them, and that caused the outcome.”

Though the season ended with a loss, the fact that Nazareth made it to the state quarterfinals was quite an achievement. The Roadrunners started 0-3 but rallied to win five of their final six regular-season games to qualify for the state playoffs.

“A lot of people counted us out,” said Racki. “But these kids didn’t listen, and it’s hard to block [criticism] out when you’re that age. … Today doesn’t define us. This was a successful season. When you reach the quarterfinals, it isn’t a rebuild.”

Malachuk, Miller, Taylor and freshman defensive lineman Gabe Kaminski will lead a strong group of returnees for Nazareth next fall.

“Next year, we’re going to come back hard,” Taylor said. “We’re going to remember this feeling; it’s going to be fuel for us.”