Nazareth Academy senior receiver Zach Hayes was totally focused on making the last-minute catch — even as he was falling — with the IHSA Class 5A state semifinal football game on the line on Nov. 19.

“I caught it with my body. I got both of my hands under [the football],” Hayes said. “I just knew it was third down and goal. It was now or never time.” 

Hayes was among the last to realize he just scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown. 

The 7-yard reception from sophomore quarterback Logan Malachuk with 2:38 remaining lifted the Roadrunners to a 10-7 road victory over previously undefeated Sycamore. 

Nazareth (9-4) will play for its fourth state title at 10 a.m. on Nov. 26 against Peoria (12-1) at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

“I didn’t know where I was and then I just saw the [goal] line as I went to the ground and I was so excited,” said Hayes, who shares the team lead with four touchdown receptions.

“This is the best by far.”

The Roadrunners last won a state championship as a Class 7A school in 2018 following titles for 5A in 2015 and 6A in 2014. They were second in 2019 at 7A and in 2017 at 6A.

After winning a wild 2-0 season opener against No. 1 Kankakee, the Roadrunners fell to 2-4 before winning the last three regular-season games to make the playoffs.

“This is just the best. Going from 2-4 — barely making it in — to here. It’s what we’ve always wanted, what we’ve always wished for,” Hayes said.

Before this team, the 2021 Class 5A quarterfinalists were the furthest Nazareth went in the playoffs after a 5-4 regular season.

“We got kicked down pretty good, fell out of the rankings. I’ve never had a team that has really emerged out of the depths to literally where we are,” Nazareth coach Tim Racki said. “It’s a very special group. What a reward.”

Senior and Wisconsin recruit Justin Taylor, the only freshman on the 2019 state roster, made it look fairly easy on the winning drive. 

Two plays after his 7-yard reception, Taylor moved to quarterback out of a wildcat-type formation and converted a key third-and-2 with a 28-yard run down the right sideline to the 9, followed by another 2-yard run as quarterback. 

“Honestly, it’s just very rewarding, all of the adversity we’ve been through,” Taylor said. 

It was the first time all season the Roadrunners used the practiced wedge formation, resulting in a “cheese” yell along the sidelines when Taylor temporarily became quarterback.

Sycamore (12-1) reached the Nazareth 31 in the final minute, but Lesroy Tittle’s interception at the 4 and return to the 45 with 26 seconds left sealed the victory.

Sycamore took a 7-0 lead with 3:12 left in the second quarter on a 93-yard, 5:56 drive on 12 rushing plays. Hayes’ season-long 34-yard field goal 31.8 seconds before halftime closed the deficit to 7-3.

Hayes’ seventh field goal of the season was probably his hardest, considering the brutal wind coupled with freezing temperatures.

“[Pregame practice kicks] were blowing to the right, so I knew I had to kick it all the way to the left for it to blow in,” Hayes said. “It scraped through, but it was pretty cool to see that go through.” 

Peoria is coming off a 76-56 semifinal victory over Morris, which shares the 12th highest-scoring game in recorded IHSA history. The Lions scored 62, 48 and 36 points in their first three playoff victories and between 54 and 66 points in five regular-season victories. Their only loss was 30-6 on Oct. 14 to Class 6A Normal Community West.

The Roadrunners have allowed 62 total points during their current seven-game winning streak.