LA GRANGE PARK – In a game Nazareth coach Tim Racki likened to a boxing match, it was visiting Sycamore that got the knockout blow.
The Roadrunners' season ended with a 33-28 loss to the undefeated Spartans in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs on Saturday. There were three lead changes, including one in the fourth quarter, and both teams played a physical brand of football throughout the game.
Ben Niemann, Sycamore's Iowa recruit, caught two touchdowns, including what ended up being the game-winner on a 57-yard screen pass with 4:06 remaining in the game.
The loss snapped a six-game winning streak for the Roadrunners (8-3).
“My kids did what I ask them to do every week,” Racki said. “I’m not the least bit disappointed. They gave max effort. They went full speed. They never quit. That’s how this team is.”
Niemann caught his first touchdown in the second quarter on a 7-yard fade to give Sycamore a 13-7 lead, which was the halftime score. The Spartans (11-0) scored first in the second half to double the lead, but Naz answered quickly.
Big runs from Ivory Kelly-Martin and Julian Love combined for a two-play, 84-yard scoring drive. Later in the third Chris Simmons gave Naz a 21-19 lead on a 2-yard run.
Sycamore scored twice in the fourth quarter, including Niemann’s 57-yard TD to make it 33-21 with 5:19 left in the game.
A 35-yard pass from Carson Bartels to Kevin Jackson capped off a quick four-play scoring drive for Naz to cut it to 33-28. The Roadrunner defense forced a three-and-out and a six-yard punt gave Naz the ball on the Sycamore 42 before getting stopped.
“I didn’t do my best coaching job in that second half," Racki said. "It’s on me. They gave the effort. I got to be a better coach in the second half.”
The Roadrunners featured a number of young contributors. Running backs Simmons and Love are both sophomores and Kelly-Martin is a freshman. Bartels is also a sophomore.
Despite relying on a number of underclassmen in key roles, the Roadrunners were able to jell and succeed.
“If you don’t have a senior class who embraces that, we’re turning in our pads two weeks ago,” Racki said. “You need that senior leadership, and boy did our seniors leave a mark by shaping and showing these young kids the work that it takes.
"When the sting wears off, what a ride it was. It was really a fun journey. These kids were coachable, they listen, they were respectful off the field. As a coach, just a really special season. It was fun every single day spending all this time with these young men.”
Passing: Carson Bartels 4-for-9, 76 yards
Rushing: Julian Love 14-90, TD; Ivory Kelly-Martin 8-77
Receiving: Doug DiFusco 3-69; Kevin Jackson 2-57, TD