Nazareth Academy football players hoist the IHSA Class 5A state championship trophy following their win over Peoria in Champaign on Nov. 26. | Photo courtesy of Visual Image Photography
Gabe Kaminski

Nazareth Academy sophomore Gabe Kaminski, of Riverside, nearly won an IHSA Class 1A state wrestling championship last season, taking second at 220 pounds after losing the title match 5-4.

Returning to the University of Illinois on Nov. 26, Kaminski contributed to the Roadrunners capturing their fourth state football championship by a single point, 45-44 over Peoria in a wild IHSA Class 5A state final.

“I think football’s my No. 1 love,” said Kaminski. “I fell short [in wrestling]. It hurt but it just gave me fuel to come here, the same place, and win this with my brothers.”

The Roadrunners (10-4) won eight straight after a 2-4 start forced them to win their last three regular-season games just to make the playoffs.

Since the playoffs expanded to eight classes in 2001 to regularly include 5-4 qualifiers, Nazareth became just the fourth state champion after a 5-4 regular season and the first after a 2-4 start.

“That is not easy at any level of football, when you’re losing, you’re out of the rankings, not many people are going to your games anymore and you’re doubting yourself,” Nazareth coach Tim Racki said. “But this team was incredibly resilient, the most resilient team I’ve ever had.”

Nazareth last won a state title in 2018 in Class 7A as well as in 2015 in Class 5A and 2014 in Class 6A. The Roadrunners’ last trophy came in 2019 with second in Class 7A. 

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Kaminski, already with Division I college offers, was among eight sophomores or freshmen in 10 starting roles.

At defensive end, Kaminski had 10 tackles (6 unassisted) and three for loss and contributed occasionally on the offensive line, including a season-long 19-yard reception. 

Kaminski also had a hand in the play that ultimately clinched the victory. 

With 5:15 left, Peoria (12-2) closed to 45-44 on a 1–yard touchdown run by senior Malachi Washington (47 carries, 273 yards), who rushed for all six Peoria touchdowns to tie the all-time IHSA state finals record.

Like their previous five TDs, the Lions went for the two-point conversion and the lead. Washington, who rushed home the previous two conversions, went outside left, but senior Braden Ferguson made the stop with Kaminski assisting.

“It was great because they would have went up by one, and that was the deciding factor,” Kaminski said. 

Peoria regained possession at its 4 with 1:55 left, but senior Zach Hayes made a co-team leading fourth interception at the Lions’ 39 and the Roadrunners ran out the clock.

“Oh, that’s got to rank No. 1 [of my plays] for sure,” Hayes said. “It might not be my favorite interception by itself, but the moment, the stage. It is obviously the best thing to win a state championship with my brothers in my final high school game.”  

The Roadrunners trailed 30-29 and 38-37 but pulled ahead 45-38 with 6:19 left on a 1-yard touchdown run by junior Brendan Flanagan and 2-point pass from sophomore quarterback Logan Malachuk to sophomore James Penley.

Malachuk rushed for 6- and 10-yard touchdowns and threw touchdown passes to freshman Edward McClain Jr. (1 yard) and Hayes (28 yards) for a 22-8 lead in the second quarter.

Senior and Wisconsin recruit Justin Taylor scored on a 2-yard run and ran in a 2-point conversion. Hayes caught a 2-point pass and kicked three extra points.

Taylor is among 13 seniors and the lone returnee from the 2019 state runner-up.

“That’s the biggest thing, just staying poised, staying calm,” Taylor said. “The senior class, we just show by example. We were in their shoes not too long ago.”