Nazareth wins thriller for 5A state championship
Zach Hayes couldn't quite convey his exact feelings while basking in the limelight in the moments following making the state championship-clinching interception, beyond, perhaps, feeling a sense of shock.
With Peoria trailing by one with under two minutes left, Hayes, the Nazareth senior defensive back, intercepted Peoria quarterback Tino Gist to ultimately ice the 45-44 victory in the Class 5A state final on Saturday in Champaign.
"We've been repping. [Peoria] ran a four-fly fake [vertical] play all week and our scout team gave a great look," Hayes said. "I knew they couldn't keep running the ball with the clock running down. [There were] two receivers to my side and immediately, I saw [one] receiver fake going in so I knew it wasn't going to him ... I saw [the ball] before his receiver did, made a break on the ball and secured it.
"I can't believe it. I'm in shock still. This is all I've ever wanted to be the one to get an interception to secure it. It's just surreal."
Nazareth, which has only 13 seniors total and starts a vast majority of underclassmen, is the first team in IHSA history to go from beginning the season 2-4 to state champion. The title represents Nazareth's fourth title in program history and first since 2018, when it defeated St. Charles North in 2018.
The Roadrunners first defeated Kankakee in their 2022 season-opener 2-0. Then, had to overcome an ensuing three-game losing streak before beating Carmel and then lost to 7A semifinalist St. Rita before their ultimate run to glory.
Outside expectations, transfers out of the program and beyond, Nazareth stuck together.
The culmination of that entire journey took shape with overcoming Peoria senior running back Malachi Washington's banner day
Washington (47 rushes, 273 rushing yards) was moments removed from scoring his sixth touchdown -- tying the record for most rushing touchdowns in any class title game with 5:15 remaining. Peoria, needing one to tie, again elected to go for two.
There was little doubt who was getting the ball.
Washington broke left, but Nazareth sophomore Gabe Kaminski knifed through for the stop.
Still, Peoria (12-2) had hope after stopping Nazareth inside the 5-yard line with 1:59 left.
The Lions, who last won a state title in 2016, only made it to their 24-yard line before Hayes sunk their hopes with the game-clinching interception.
" ... I've been doing this a long time and I've been blessed to have successful football teams, but I've never had a team that was 2-4 and ended up where we are today as 5A state champions," Roadrunners coach Tim Racki said. "And, that is not easy at all at any level of football.
"When you're losing, you're out of the rankings, not many people are going to games anymore and you're doubting yourself ... that's, usually, what the majority of the time happens with a lot of people. This team was incredibly resilient. The most resilient team I've ever had."
Washington scored his fifth touchdown on a third-and-goal chance, and scored the two-point conversion with 7:58 remaining, to give Peoria a 38-37 lead. With the score, his 52nd of the season, Washington surpassed 2005 Morris alum John Dergo for the state record for individual rushing touchdowns in a season.
"[Washington] was in film; he was in my dreams," Racki said. "You talk about an old-school running back with power, speed, tenacity, gets stronger as the game goes on ... he is a complete running back. That's, hands down, the best running back we have seen all year. Maybe, for me, in a few years. He's very special."
Nazareth (10-4) took a 22-14 lead into the half.
Nazareth QB Logan Malachuk finished 15 of 27 for 245 yards and two touchdowns. His lone interception came on the Roadrunners' opening second-half possession.
Peoria then converted the turnover into points as Washington scored from 16 yards out on fourth down -- his first of four scores in the second half.
Twice Nazareth answered with short rushing touchdowns from Malachuk, and Brendan Flanagan's 1-yard TD run -- along with the ensuing two-point conversion from Malachuk to James Penley -- with 6:19 remaining ultimately proved to be the difference.
Nazareth running back Justin Taylor scored once and finished with 108 yards on 17 carries. Penley had four catches for 102 yards. Zach Hayes (4 catches, 62 yards) and Edward McClain Jr. (3 catches, 11 yards) each hauled in TD receptions.
Washington finished with 273 yards on 47 carries. Peoria wide receiver TQ Webb had five catches for 124 yards. Linebacker Gary Rutherford led with 11 total tackles, while Amari Smith had the lone Lions sack.
"The kids worked their butts off all year. I think [when] we started the season, no one counted them in the top two. Many didn't count them in the top-10 and they just kept overcoming, and overcoming and overcoming, Lions coach Tim Thornton said. " ... There was no quit in them for the entire game. They played their tails off consistently and we just came up, obviously, one [stop] short. Extremely proud of them. Love this group and they'll be Lions forever."