Malachuk, Tittle run Nazareth past St. Francis into state championship game
Tim Racki sat in his football office at Nazareth.
His Roadrunners had just lost to St. Francis at home in Week 9 to finish the regular season with a 4-5 record, which included an 0-4 start.
The longtime Nazareth football coach knew his team likely had enough playoff points to sneak into the playoffs, so the confidence was there.
While Nazareth knew it would have one more week, not too many people would have believed a Week 9 rematch would take place in the Class 5A semifinals with a trip to the state championship game on the line.
Quarterback Logan Malachuk ran for two touchdowns -- one in each half -- as Nazareth held off St. Francis, 38-31, on Saturday at Valenta Stadium to advance to its second consecutive state title game.
Nazareth (8-5), which last year overcame a 2-4 start to its season to win the Class 5A state championship, will take on Joliet Catholic (a 31-21 winner over Providence Saturday) in the 5A state championship game at 10 a.m. Saturday at Illinois State's Hancock Stadium in Normal.
"It never gets old playing for the state championship," said Racki, who will be coaching in his seventh state championship game in 19 years as Nazareth head coach. "I think this team just continued to make incremental improvements each and every week. Their confidence never wavered, but most importantly I think they were extremely resilient in learning from our failures. Failure is tough to deal with, but this team used it as information to learn from those failures and get to this point."
Nazareth took an early 17-0 lead on first-quarter touchdown runs by Lesroy Tittle (52 yards) and Malachuk (34 yards). Eddie McClain, Jr. also had a first-half touchdown run for the Roadrunners in the victory. Nazareth used seven different players in its rushing attack and ran for 227 yards as a team.
"We did this as a team and not individuals and I think that's what I'm most proud of," said Malachuk, who ran for 77 yards in the victory. "We all came together and knew what the job was today. We did it as one and it really was just an awesome game."
Ball State commit Alessio Milivojevic did everything in his power to give the Spartans an opportunity to come back. He finished the afternoon with 16-of-28 passing for 313 yards and four touchdowns. Ian Willis caught two of those touchdowns and finished with seven catches for 131 yards.
However, Gabe Kaminski and the Nazareth defense made St. Francis (10-3) a somewhat one-dimensional offense. The Spartans mustered up just 79 yards on the ground, 46 of which came from Milivojevic scrambling on broken plays.
"I think you learn the most from a loss," Kaminski said. "That's a great football team over there [in St. Francis], but we've been here before and know what it takes. We knew they were going to make some big plays, but we didn't get down about it. We did what we had to do today to get the win."
St. Francis coach Bob McMillen said after his team's Week 9 victory that he hoped Nazareth got a playoff bid because it was deserving. After Saturday's loss to the Roadrunners, he doubled down on that thought.
"This is the exact reason why Nazareth needed to be in the playoffs," McMillen said. "They're a heck of a football team. They flat out outplayed us today. You can't give up 17 points to start the game and expect to come back and beat a team like that. They came out and ran it right down our throats and we couldn't stop them. They deserve to be playing for a state championship."
Willis scored the second of his two touchdowns on a 4th-and-20 from the Nazareth 28 to bring St. Francis within seven at the 3:00 mark of the fourth quarter, but Nazareth was able to gain two first downs to run out the final minutes of the clock.
Jake Cestone had two crucial third down catches in the second half for the Roadrunners.