Nazareth rides dominant second half to stun JCA 38-20 in IHSA Class 5A state championship

NORMAL - Logan Malachuk could finally exhale after the frantic sprint to the finish line. He could smile a bit, too.

Nazareth was moments removed from pulling off the seemingly unimaginable.

The defending Class 5A champion, the Roadrunners entered Saturday as the first team to reach a championship game after starting 0-4, and the only finalist to ever get to a title game with five regular-season losses.

Trailing by 10 at halftime, Nazareth's unlikely run was trending toward crushing disappointment. Behind an unanswered 31 points, 28 in the second half, Malachuk's offense hit top gear with everything hanging in the balance.

"It means everything," Malachuk said following their 38-20 comeback victory over Joliet Catholic in the Class 5A state title game at Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium.

"I mean, that just goes to show the poise that we all have, and how the character has been built in us with all the adversity we've gone through this entire year. It built us for this moment. There's no better way I'd want to win it," Malachuk said following his 23-of-34 title-clinching performance with 414 yards and four touchdowns.

JCA took a 20-10 halftime lead, largely due to its dominance on the ground. JCA led Nazareth 257 to 76 in net rushing yards at half, and Hilltoppers senior running back HJ Grigsby had 223 rushing yards on 22 attempts.

It didn't deter Nazareth's (9-5) march to glory en route to its fifth state title in program history. JCA only had 58 rushing yards the rest of the way with Grigsby grinding through an apparent injury.

"Going into the half, I mean, we've been beaten up the whole year and we knew it," Nazareth senior defensive lineman Brendan Flanagan said. "We knew they had a really good running back [Grigsby] and he showed it. He was a stud. We knew they ran behind a really good line, and so our confidence [at the half] was a little down but at the same time, we knew we took their best punch and we knew we were going to give it right back in the second half ... all of us were just up and ready to go. We wanted to go out and play the second half."

Out of the break, Nazareth kicker Andrew Fowler missed a 29-yard field goal with 7:52 left in the third quarter for the score to remain 20-10, but Nazareth standout Gabe Kaminski powered through with a timely interception of Hilltoppers quarterback Andres Munoz (6 of 16, 42 passing yards) on third down inside the red zone to flip the field with 2:13 left in the quarter.

An ensuing scuffle on the Nazareth sideline due to a late hit on the return, "got everybody juiced up a little bit."

"Got a fire underneath us," said Kaminski, who finished with 15 total tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and the interception. "We took off from there."

Nazareth then ground out an eight-play drive that was capped by Malachuk's 3-yard passing touchdown to James Penley to pull within 20-17 with 37 seconds left in the quarter.

Penley then added a 52-yard touchdown to claim the 24-20 Nazareth lead with 9:53 remaining, and Malachuk padded the lead with a 4-yard passing score to Trent Walker for the stunning 31-20 lead with 6:32 left.

Malachuk wasn't done, as he later iced the game with a 40-yard touchdown to Jake Cestone with 3:36 left to cap off a banner performance.

Penley had seven catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns, while Cestone had four catches for 163 yards and a TD. Trenton Walker had nine catches for 52 yards and a touchdown.

"I've always said this. I've played with him since sixth grade," Malachuk said of Penley. "Our bond and our trust for each other, I mean, it can never be broken and it's as tight as ever. When he knows I need a play, I know where I'm going and most of the time, it's always to him. He knows what he needs to do and we're all on the same page. I get him the ball and he makes plays."

Joliet Catholic won the Class 5A title in 2018 and 2021, but was unable to sustain the dominant first half.

The Hilltoppers (10-4) struck first on a 2-yard rushing score by Grigsby with 6:34 remaining in the first quarter for the 7-0 lead. Their next offensive possession, the Hilltoppers were on the cusp of another touchdown following Grigsby's 79-yard run. Kaminski, however, pounced on a fumble on fourth-and-goal to stave off the momentum.

Hilltoppers junior running back Nate Magrini (41 yards) added a 5-yard rushing score with 9:54 left in the second quarter, but the extra point was blocked to remain 13-0 JCA.

Nazareth's offense broke through with a 41-yard rushing touchdown by Lesroy Tittle with 8:34 left in the half to pull within 13-7.

JCA added a 1-yard touchdown by junior Keegan Farnaus with 41 seconds remaining, but Nazareth engineered a half-ending drive capped by Fowler knocking in a 20-yard field goal to make it 20-10.

Nazareth simply willed itself above all the noise. It had a destiny of overcoming four consecutive losses, sneaking into the playoff field at 4-5 and running the table en route to a consecutive state title to fulfill.

"As everybody knows, this was not easy," Roadrunners coach Tim Racki said. "We've never been through anything like this. I'm old enough to where I thought I had seen it all, but it starts with, first of all, with my coaching staff. ... When you go through a 0-4 skid, it's easy to kind of spiral and I had really questioned myself. I never blame the kids in that, but I certainly felt like I failed them that first month of the season. So, we had a lot of deep talks about where we were, how we got there, what we do well and what we need to do moving forward.

Racki was proud of how his team responded.

"Because of the culture, and a lot of guys have been in the program for more than a couple years, they bought in and I bought into them," Racki said. " ... The love for each other. That's something that never wavered at all. ... It's really a special journey to be on. And, I told them, 'Regardless of what was going to happen today, I'm going to be bummed out after we celebrate because it's over.'"

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