By Marty Farmer
For the third time in four years, the Nazareth Academy football team will play in an IHSA state final.
The Roadrunners (12-1) take on Prairie Ridge (13-0) at Huskie Stadium on the Northern Illinois University campus Saturday, Nov. 25. Kickoff is 1 p.m.
Previously, Nazareth won state championships in 2014 and 2015. Hopefully, the third time is charmed like the last two opportunities.
"When you are in a playoff run, you don't really have time to reflect on past accomplishments," Nazareth coach Tim Racki said. "It speaks volumes to the many young men who no longer wear the jersey and helped us reach this point. There is a tremendous feeling of pride knowing that those players from the past really forged this path.
"Our current group really peaked at the right time. They love having fun playing football. They also have no concept of what the word pressure means, which is good."
Prairie Ridge, which won a state title last season, has won 27 games in a row. The Wolves are led by Iowa-bound Samson Evans. In a 42-21 win against Hoffman Estates, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Evans rushed 34 times for 330 yards. Offensively, Prairie Ridge runs the triple option offense to near perfection.
"Prairie Ridge is a great team with a game changer at quarterback (Evans) that we must limit," Racki said. "They also have a powerful opffensive line that creates holes, a really fast running back,and a fundamentally-sound, swarming defense. It's a well coached team.
"We're hoping that our speed will give them some issues on both sides of the ball. We will need to move the ball and stay balanced with the run and pass."
Nazareth punched its ticket to the Class 6A state championship game with a 24-7 win over host Providence Catholic in the state semifinals on Saturday, Nov. 18.
After a scoreless first quarter in New Lenox, Nazareth running back Devin Blakley scored a 3-yard touchdown run with 6:15 left in the second quarter. After a key interception by teammate Michael Love, Blakley added a 30-yard scamper into the end zone at the 7:44 mark of the third quarter, extending the Roadrunners' lead to 14-0.
In the fourth quarter, Providence Catholic quarterback Caden Kalinowski responded with an 8-yard touchdown to make the score 14-7.
With 2:40 left in regulation, Nazareth scored 10 unanswered points to secure a 24-7 victory. Bobby Grimes kicked a 32-yard field goal and Love scored on a 35-yard TD run.
Blakley led Nazareth in rushing with 84 yards and two TDs on 18 carries. Sophomore Marcus Griffin chipped in 40 yards on the ground. The Roadrunners didn't complete a pass the entire game.
"The weather conditions played a huge role in that (limited pass attempts)," Racki said. "Plus, we had a lead and we wanted to burn some clock, so we slowed down the tempo and ran more."
Along with Blakley and Love's ability to find the end zone, the Roadrunners pulled out the hard-fought win courtesy of a solid defensive effort, two costly turnovers by the Celtics, and a tremendous effort from Nazareth punter Daniel Wilkinson.
Wilkinson averaged 49.9 yards per punt, highlighted by three inside the 20-yard line.
"Wilkinson was outstanding," Racki said. "His performance was a huge key for us winning the game."
In several stats offensively, Providence Catholic held a slight edge against Nazareth. The Celtics finished with more total yards (226-141), first downs (11-6) and total plays (57-43). Providence Catholic running back DeShon Gavin, who will play football at Western Illinois University next season, ran well with 104 yards on 19 carries.
Providence Catholic, which has won 10 state titles, bounced back from an 0-2 start to finish 8-5 this season.