Underrated Nazareth Academy defensive lineman Louie Stec altered the course of the Class 7A semifinal between the host Roadrunners and Batavia on Saturday.
"Louie is a special kid," said Nazareth quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who completed 17 of 26 passes for 319 yards. "It's a shame he is not recruited the way he should be. I've never seen anyone work as hard as he does. He brings it every single day at every single practice."
Stec made several timely plays, including a sack and blocked punt on consecutive plays to spark the Roadrunners' 47-28 victory. He finished with two sacks and two tackles for loss.
"Marcus Griffin provided pressure on the play," Stec said about his first sack. "I just came in and took (Batavia quarterback Jack Meyers) down for a loss. On the blocked punt, I just shut my eyes and put my hand up. I heard a thump and then I saw the ball roll towards the end zone.
"It was a hard-fought game," he added. "It came down to who wanted it more and I believe it was us. I'm proud of my team."
Batavia scored first when quarterback Meyers threw a 6-yard touchdown to Art Taylor. Jackson Williams kicked the extra point to put the Bulldogs ahead 7-0 with 4:13 left in the first quarter.
Nazareth responded emphatically by scoring 28 unanswered points. The scoring plays were a 6-yard run by Alex Carrillo, 1-yard run by Michael Love, 1-yard run by Dylan Smith and 61-yard reception by Love. Andrew Hughes made all four PATs during the scoring flurry.
Batavia, which won the 7A championship last year, cut its deficit in half to 28-14 when Meyers connected with Zack Weber on a 16-yard pass with 54.6 seconds left in the first half.
The teams traded two touchdowns apiece in a wild third quarter to make the score 41-28. Smith scored on an 8-yard run and Derrick Strongs ran into the end zone on an 86-yard kickoff return. Strongs' special teams' score changed the momentum for good as the Bulldogs went scoreless the rest of the way.
"They had the momentum but they had it for only 25 to 30 seconds before Derrick's kickoff return," Nazareth coach Tim Racki said. "It was a huge play with incredible blocking. Diamond (Evans) blocked two or three guys by himself."
In the fourth quarter, Love (2 caries, 29 yards; 3 catches, 100 yards) scored his third touchdown on a 28-yard scamper into the end zone to put the game out of reach.
Nazareth (12-1) faces St. Charles North (10-3) for the 7A title at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 24 at Memorial Stadium on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign.
"It feels good," Love said about the Roadrunner's return to a state final. "This was the goal and we worked for it. It definitely feels good to accomplish it. Especially with this being my senior year, we wanted to go out with a bang.
"I think it helps because we had that experience. St. Charles doesn't have it. We're confident and going to have fun."
Evans, a standout two-way player like Love, also believes the Roadrunners' big-game experience and belief will help.
"We know what we've got to do. We know the stage and we've been there before. We've just got to come together as a family and ball out."
Since 2014, Nazareth has played in three state finals, winning two of those games.