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Nazareth not shying away from lofty projections

Defending Class 7A champs ranked fourth in Midwest by USA Today

LAGRANGE PARK – Nazareth’s Marcus Griffin Jr. made a point to let his teammates hear his message throughout their opening practice Aug. 12.

Despite the weather – dark, gloomy and a constant drizzle of rain – leading to less-than-ideal conditions for the opening of fall practice, Griffin was a beacon of activity throughout the two-plus hour session.

Wearing a bright orange shirt and white shorts, Griffin was all over the field, making plays and letting everybody on the field – and in the stands – hear his voice.

“My role is the enforcer,” said Griffin, a four-year varsity player. “I have to enforce everything. They’d rather have me be the enforcer than the big man [coach Tim Racki]. If I tell them to do something, I have to do it, too. We’re all equal.”

Although the Roadrunners would have preferred better weather, their forecast for the 2019 season is filled with sunshine. The defending Class 7A champions lost nine offensive starters and five defensive starters from last season’s 13-1 team, most notably Suburban Life Player of the Year Michael Love, now at Northern Illinois, but the return of junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy bodes well for an offense that features numerous elite-level playmakers.

McCarthy, a Michigan recruit, had a dazzling season in his debut on varsity last year. He passed for 3,289 yards and 36 touchdowns and threw only four interceptions.

McCarthy spent his first official upperclassmen practice slinging touchdown passes, doing pushups on a whim and enjoying the view from the sideline toward the end of the long session.

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound McCarthy, a five-star recruit, didn’t shy away from big-time projections. The Roadrunners have won three state titles in the past five years and many national preseason publications have ranked them among the best teams in the country.

USA Today placed Nazareth fourth in the Midwest rankings.

“Winning state is always the goal, but we’re worried about Week 1,” McCarthy said. “The rankings come after Week 14. We’re going to try and get it done week after week. Our bigger goal is to be the best possible team we can be. Being the best possible team is going to come along with scoring a lot of points. We have a very talented roster. If everyone is mentally strong and comes together as one, it’s going to be a very special season.”

Sophomore wide receiver Tyler Morris, who has 10 Power Five school offers, said high expectations are part of the Nazareth culture.

“We have to come together as a team and try and repeat what we did last year, but at the same time, we’re a whole different team than last year and come together as our own team,” Morris said. “If people want to look at us as a nationally ranked team, that’s a big goal for us. But first we have to make and win state.”

Racki is moving closer to Phil Jackson territory after winning his seventh career state title last season. Racki set the tone for the season by running the first practice with a set schedule, barking out instructions throughout to ensure a fast pace. Wearing a sleeveless shirt that gave hints of his collegiate playing days at Southern Illinois, Racki emphasized conditioning and focus for his players to not lose sight of the bull’s-eye on their backs.

“Coach makes us all take it serious and our goal is to get to state and for us not to be like one of these teams that goof off and play around in practice,” Morris said.

McCarthy added: “Coach [Racki] coaches a different team every year. He adapts to every single team, but the way he does it, he knows last year everyone knows after last year everyone might be thinking it will be a cakewalk to state. But he tries to inflict that mindset to work every day.”