Tim Racki is one of the most successful high school coaches in Illinois. In his 13th season as head coach at Nazareth Academy, he has transformed an average program into a perrenial powerhouse, compiling a 94-47 record while leading the Roadrunners to back-to-back state titles in 2014 and 2015.
The Roadrunners took a step back last season with a young team that finished 6-5. The experience gained, however, has paid off so far in 2017 with a 9-1 record entering Saturday's second-round 6A playoff game versus visiting Danville.
Nazareth jumped out to an early 21-0 lead en route to an impressive 54-18 victory against the Vikings in LaGrange Park. The Roadrunners (10-1) advance to the state quarterfinals for the third time in the last four seasons.
"I was very impressed with our effort" Racki said. "We've been playing well all year, but I also think we've been a little tight. These guys put a lot of pressure on themselves.
"We focused this week on having fun, not only playing for themselves and enjoying football, but also playing for each other. I saw a lot of enthusiasm and positive communication, and it translated in our execution. I'm very proud of our guys, and they're very deserving of getting into the quarterfinals."
After the Nazareth defense stopped Danville on the game's initial drive, the Roadrunners' David Oglesby returned the ensuing punt 57 yards to the Vikings' 2-yard line. Running back Marcus Griffin went in the end zone on the next play, and Daniel Wilkinson's extra point gave Nazareth a 7-0 lead just 2:44 into the game.
On Danville's next drive, quarterback Ernest Plummer's fumble was recovered by Nazareth's Isaiah Lee at the Vikings' 24. Gifted excellent field position, the Roadrunners immediately cashed in with a 24-yard scoring toss from Bobby Grimes to Michael Love - the first of three touchdown passes the duo would connect on during the game. The PAT raised the score to 14-0 at the 6:47 mark of the opening quarter.
"I knew Michael had the advantage in his matchup," Grimes said of the success he and Love enjoyed. "He was definitely the better athlete, and I knew he was going to beat his defender."
Love added, "We trust each other a lot. I trust my matchup, and I'm very confident in Bobby. He has a great arm and when he throws, something good happens."
The Roadrunners' defense got another takeaway on the next drive, with Alex Carrillo intercepting a Plummer pass near midfield. Then a 30-yard run by Oglesby set up Devin Blakely's 7-yard TD run. Nazareth led 21-0 after the first quarter.
Caleb Griffin's 31-yard field goal at the 10:31 mark of the second quarter put Danville on the scoreboard. But Nazareth countered with a 14-play, 80-yard march that culminated in Marcus Griffin's second 2-yard TD run. The Roadrunners led 27-3 after the missed PAT.
Then Oglesby, after nearly scoring on an earlier punt return, did so on the next possession, going 59 yards to the house. This electrifying play boosted the lead to 33-3 with four minutes left in the first half.
Oglesby credited his blockers for his success.
"My teammates blocked really well," he said. "They opened up the hole and I scored."
Oglesby' play is a reflection of the Roadrunners' depth in all three phases of the game.
"David Oglesby thanked every blocker," Racki said. "He had great blocks and showed his explosiveness on those returns. Blakely's our regular punt returner, but he's been nursing an injury. It's nice to have that type of depth."
Largely due to a successful fake punt return by Griffin, the Vikings managed to fine the end zone with five seconds left before halftime on Plummer's 6-yard pass to Daylen Davis-Williams. Nazareth led 33-10 at the break.
Any ideas Danville had of making a game of it were doused late in the third quarter by two more Nazareth touchdowns - a 1-yard run by Dylan Smith and a 42-yard pass from Grimes to Love. Then Grimes connected with Love again for a 23-yard TD to give the Roadrunners a 54-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
With a running clock initiated for the remainder of the game, the Vikings managed to tack on one more touchdown and a two-point conversion in the closing minutes.
Up next for the Roadrunners is a visit to Springfield to face Sacred Heart-Griffin. The Cyclones, under the leadership of legendary coach Ken Leonard, have long been a Downstate power. This year's team features two running backs that will play at state universities next year, All-Stater Tremayne Lee (Southern Illinois) and Brian Adams (Illinois State).
Although the Roadrunners will have their hands full, Racki and his players are looking forward to the challenge.
"I'm impressed with coach Leonard and his career. He's an excellent coach," Racki said. "It's going to be a tough game in that environment but it's also exciting. That's what high school football is all about, and we're looking forward to it."
With playmakers all over the field, it's understandable why the Roadrunners like their chances against any opponent.
""You can't go into a game timid at all," Love said. "Our team has a lot of confidence, a lot of swagger. I think that's to our advantage."
Grimes concurred with his teammate's assessment.
"We're pretty confident," he said. "Once we focus and come together, we know what our goal is."