Justin Taylor savors Nazareth’s improbable road to Champaign, leading young team to state title

Nazareth's Justin Taylor is overcome with emotion after their IHSA Class 5A state championship win over Peoria Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN – As Justin Taylor walked out of the Memorial Stadium exit to a waiting bus, the Nazareth senior made certain to prominently display his championship medal.

His journey made him cherish the moment.

Taylor, like many of his Roadrunners’ teammates, was once young and talented, his future in front of him. He was a freshman on the Nazareth team that lost to Mount Carmel in the 2019 Class 7A final, a group that all but guaranteed it would be back in short order.

With J.J. McCarthy and Tyler Morris around, it seemed a safe bet.

“That team was loaded. I was thinking we’d be back the next year,” said Taylor, now a senior. “We had a young team and everybody was mature. It was going to be really scary for other teams. But you can’t control what happened.”

Indeed, Nazareth’s road back to a state championship took three years. To Taylor, it probably felt like a lifetime.

A pandemic hit, the fall 2020 season was pushed back to the spring and McCarthy left. Others followed. Nazareth recovered to reach the quarterfinals last fall, but a run this year to Champaign seemed like a pipe dream when the Roadrunners started 2-4.

Nazareth's Justin Taylor picks up big yardage before being knocked out of bounds by Peoria's Ricky Hearn during their IHSA Class 5A state championship game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

Eight wins later, Nazareth on Nov. 26 beat Peoria in a Class 5A championship game barnburner 45-44 to win the program’s fourth state title. The Roadrunners became only the fourth four-loss state champion, the first to do so after starting 2-4.

“It means the most,” Taylor said. “Just the work, the time, the resilience, the pain, the bumps on the road. We’ve been through so much on and off the field. This means the world.”

Taylor, a Wisconsin recruit and one of just 13 Nazareth seniors, ran for 108 yards and a touchdown and also caught a touchdown Saturday. Another senior, Zach Hayes, had the game-clinching interception.

It wasn’t the first time that small group of seniors was there when Nazareth needed them.

“Only 13 seniors, but it’s not how many you’ve got, it’s who you got,” Nazareth coach Tim Racki said. “They’ve been through a lot. COVID year, teammates who left for various reasons, people because our numbers were low thinking they’re rebuilding, that’s another thing we were hearing. It’s a special team. Those seniors really took the younger kids under their wing. It’s the most resilient team I’ve ever had.”

Most improbably, Nazareth made this run from 2-4 to a title with a bunch of kids who probably aren’t old enough to drive yet.

Nazareth on Saturday started sophomores at nine positions. A freshman, Edward McClain Jr., caught the first touchdown. Another freshman, Lesroy Tittle, started at linebacker.

Nazareth's Logan Malachuk leaps across the goal line for a touchdown during their IHSA Class 5A state championship game against Peoria Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

Like 2018 with McCarthy, the Roadrunners won a state title with a sophomore at quarterback. Malachuk threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two more. Another sophomore, James Penley, was Nazareth’s top receiver with four catches for 102 yards.

A third sophomore, defensive end Gabe Kaminski, seemingly lived in Peoria’s backfield throughout and made perhaps the game’s biggest play, turning away a Malachi Washington two-point conversion attempt for the lead in the fourth quarter. Penley and Kaminski each made 10 tackles.

Taylor, at one point, caught himself referring to Nazareth’s “kids” before addressing the impact of those youngsters. No jealousies from those seniors, even when the team was 2-4 and the season was at a crossroads.

“They are very young, but I think what is special about this team and the young kids is their maturity level,” Taylor said. “They might be 14, 15 years old, but they understand what it takes and what you have to do.”

On Saturday, they also showed the confidence of youth.

As the game with a Peoria team that had scored 76 points the previous week evolved into a shootout, Malachuk hardly hid from the moment.

In fact, he basked in it.

He coolly eluded pressure throughout and never made the big mistake. He twice scored on quarterback keepers in the second half during the back and forth.

Finally, with Nazareth trailing 38-37 in the fourth quarter, Malachuk, pressured out of the pocket, flung a rainbow that seemed to stay in the air for an eternity, allowing Taylor to run under it for a long gainer that set up the game-winning score.

“I didn’t really see anything wrong with that,” Malachuk said of the wild second half. “If we want, we can score on every single drive. And we displayed that today. We had a lot of bumps in the road, we faced adversity, but we were resilient. We just kept battling.”

Taylor said he sees a lot of McCarthy in Nazareth’s quarterback.

He saw it again Saturday.

“He has a lot of traits similar to J.J. The way he thinks, the way he moves, how he operates, it’s very similar,” Taylor said. “His resilience is one of his many traits, how he responds to adversity. He knows how to get himself moving, but he also knows how to get other guys moving.”