Nazareth knocks out defending champ Batavia
Batavia's quest to repeat as Class 7A state champion fell shy Saturday.
The Bulldogs mounted a furious comeback at Nazareth Academy but never caught the speedy Roadrunners in a 47-28 semifinal loss.
Batavia fell behind 28-7 late in the second quarter against last year's Class 6A runner-up, but a 16-yard touchdown pass from Jack Myers to Zack Weber 54 seconds before halftime provided a spark.
The spark grew to a third-quarter flame, when junior Jackson Williams jumped a post route for his second red-zone interception of the game and returned it to midfield.
"I never felt like we were out," Williams said. "It's tough being down that much, but you've got to make plays and believe in your teammates."
The Bulldogs capitalized six plays later via Quinn Urwiler's 7-yard scoring run. The touchdown drew No. 4 Batavia (12-1) within 28-21 with 4:42 left in the third quarter.
No. 6 Nazareth (12-1) answered on its ensuing drive. Sophomore quarterback JJ McCarthy escaped pressure at midfield, rolled to his right and pinpointed a 31-yard pass to Diamond Evans, who made a leaping catch at the 9-yard line. Senior running back Dylan Smith scored on the next play. The Roadrunners settled for a 34-21 lead when the extra point was blocked.
McCarthy completed 17 of 23 pass attempts for 293 yards and 2 touchdowns.
"We tried to get pressure on the quarterback," Batavia linebacker/running back Quinn Urwiler said. "We got there sometimes, but if you just give that guy three seconds he'll find the open guy and he'll hurt you."
Following a Batavia interception and a Nazareth punt, the Bulldogs again made it a one-possession game. A 24-yard run by Urwiler -- who led Batavia with 151 rushing yards on 15 carries -- set up a 31-yard touchdown pass over the middle from Myers to Weber. That drew Batavia within 35-28 with 48.5 seconds left in the third quarter.
That momentum did not last. Nazareth junior Derrick Strongs fielded the following kickoff at the 15, cut to the left sideline, somehow avoided being tackled in heavy traffic and broke loose for a touchdown and a 41-28 lead.
"It's a huge play," Nazareth coach Tim Racki said. "They got the momentum and they only had it for that 25-30 seconds until the kickoff."
"The kick return was a back breaker," Batavia coach Dennis Piron said. "All the momentum, you could feel we were getting something back. That's what is pretty special about (Nazareth). They've got about five guys who, any time they touch the football, they're gone. That's a heck of a squad there."
The Batavia offense was forced to go for it on fourth-and-1 at its own 29 with 5:30 left in the game but did not pick up the first down.
The Roadrunners sealed a trip to Champaign on the next play. Michael Love scored on a 28-yard run. Love also made 5 catches for 115 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown.
The game was tied 7-7 in the first quarter, but punt-team hiccups cost the Bulldogs. They snapped the ball over the punter Williams' head. He recovered it in the end zone and eventually got off a punt but Nazareth took possession at the Batavia 39.
Love would later score on a 4-yard run after McCarthy improvised and found Breven Reifsteck for a 35-yard reception. Reifsteck made 7 catches for 118 yards.
Batavia's next punt was blocked after a low snap caused a delay. The Roadrunners got the ball at the 1-yard line and Smith scored on the next play to make it 21-7.
"Their punt return team is terrifying because you can't punt it to them because Love is a game-breaker at any moment," Piron said. "So you're trying to think about ways to do it and I think our kids were a little bit nervous about punting early on. That really got us behind the eight-ball, those couple of things."
The loss snapped the Bulldogs' 17-game winning streak and denied them a chance to repeat.
Afterward, the players lingered on the field for 30 minutes saying goodbye to teammates with whom they forged lifetime bonds.
"All these guys, I'm never going to forget any of them," said linebacker Michael Jansey, who will don Northwestern purple the next time he plays football. "I'm never going to move on from any of them. This ended on the field, but from now on we're going to take it off the field and be there for each other for the rest of our lives. Batavia has created a brotherhood and it's never going to end."