Suburban Life football notes: Nazareth’s rare practice break pays off in playoff push

Nazareth football coach Tim Racki broke free from his normal practice routine after Week 7.

An early week game spurred Racki to let his team have some time off following a grueling stretch to start the season.

The Roadrunners (4-4) opened the season with a mixture of elite teams across classes.

The results, for a team filled with several youthful players stepping into expanded roles for the first time on the varsity, led to predictable results. The Roadrunners lost four of their opening six games, to Lemont (8-0 record), Marist (5-3), Notre Dame (6-2) and St. Rita (6-2).

The sense of urgency hit the Nazareth football team after the loss to St. Rita.

“We started to realize we had to start playing our best, not only on Friday nights but at practice in order to keep our playoff hopes alive,” Nazareth senior linebacker/tight end Braden Ferguson said.

The Roadrunners have become a playoff regular under the direction of Racki over the past decade, with several deep runs in the playoffs.

Missing the playoffs is not an option for the Roadrunners, even if the roster was filled with inexperienced players at the start of the season. This is a program that current Michigan starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy helped guide to the 2018 Class 7A state championship and a second-place finish in 2019.

After the Roadrunners defeated Chicago Leo to record their third win of the season and keep their faint playoff hopes alive on Oct. 6, Racki reversed course from his traditional routine and awarded his players a rare gift – three days off.

“I gave them Friday, Saturday and Sunday off, so when they came back Monday they would feel completely rejuvenated and have a spring in their step,” Racki said. “I don’t think I’ve ever done that.”

Nazareth's Justin Taylor runs the field during their game against Montini Friday Oct 14, 2022.

It worked.

A 42-6 triumph over Montini put the Roadrunners (4-4) squarely at .500 heading into Friday’s regular season finale at Benet.

Ferguson, who started playing football in third grade, said the team took to heart Racki’s decision to trust them prior to the Montini game.

“Coach gave us those three days to relax before the Montini game, and he said we had to come back to practice Monday with tenacity and effort,” Ferguson said. “We had the best week of practice I’ve seen from this team by far. The break definitely helped put us in the playoff mindset and got us ready mentally and physically to win out the rest of the year.

“Our team has shown a sense of urgency after our loss to St. Rita. Playing with grit and 100% effort throughout practice has paid off with our big win against Montini.”

Ferguson said the Roadrunners are motivated to beat Benet. Less than two years ago, in the spring COVID-19 season, the Redwings defeated the Roadrunners 3-0 in the final game of the shortened season. A year ago, Nazareth gained a measure of revenge in a 34-8 triumph at Benet in Week 9 to notch the all-important fifth victory. The Roadrunners won their next two playoff games before falling 28-17 to eventual 5A state champion Fenwick in a quarterfinal.

Nazareth is looking to follow the same formula to reach the playoffs on Friday.

“After our win Friday, we’re starting to realize how special of a team we really are, but we have to play with 100% effort every single play,” Ferguson said. “We’re ready to make a run in the playoffs, but our first step is to make the playoffs first, which starts with Benet.”

Racki said the Roadrunners have shown tremendous growth since the tough six-week start to start the season.

“We feel pretty good as a team,” Racki said. “The first six weeks of the season was a tough stretch, with all of the teams ranked. It was a very demanding schedule for a young team, but I’ve seen growth every week. We just played our most complete game of the season against Montini.

“We played well in all three phases and with our execution. In the past, we were not able to piece together all four quarters of a game, in terms of execution. We would have penalties at inopportune times, ball security issues and other things. You could really see their growth this past week. They’ve had a huge sense of urgency, and are really starting to take a big time ownership. This week, they were only guaranteed four days of practice and one game, while last week it was eight practices and two games. They started to feel that finality and became focused.”

Racki said the defense has spearheaded the turnaround, allowing just 13 points in the last two weeks. The Redwings (4-4) have yet to score more than 24 points in a game this season.

“Our defense has been our anchor,” Racki said. “They’ve really been consistently well, like they did on Friday night. It helps our offensive and defensive and special teams unit.”

Racki said Ferguson has been a standout contributor for the defense this season.

“Braden is a big-game linebacker,” Racki said. “He’s been a two-way starter for us. He’s extremely smart, in the classroom and on the field. He’s a workhorse. He’s not really a vocal guy, but he brings it every day.”

Extra points

York is one victory away from recording its first 9-0 undefeated record season in program history. The Dukes crushed Willowbrook 50-0 last week to run their season offensive output to 303 points against just 58 points allowed. The Dukes play at Oak Park-River Forest on Thursday night… In the West Suburban Gold, Downers Grove South (5-3, 5-0) has won five in a row heading into Saturday’s home game against Leyden…IC Catholic and St. Francis close out the regular season in fashion, with the Knights (7-1) hosting the Spartans (8-0) on Friday night.