Nazareth coach Tim Racki never wants to put extra pressure on his players.
He also wants the team focused on the present and not the past.
“Being at Nazareth, players sometimes want to press to carry on the tradition, but we want them to make their own team,” Racki said. “You get in trouble when you try to be like last year’s team. They’re focusing on progress, not wins and losses.”
Nazareth, which has made three playoff appearances in the last five seasons, enjoyed its best season in program history last year.
The Roadrunners finished 10-2, losing to eventual state champion Prairie Ridge in the Class 6A quarterfinals. They also earned its first East Suburban Catholic championship after tying Marist with a 7-1 mark.
“Winning a conference championship was a tremendous accomplishment, but our goal is to make the playoffs and make a run at state,” Racki said. “I’m very excited, especially with the senior group that contributed mightily to the success and playoff run we had last year. We have not only tremendous senior talent but great leadership. They know it’s their turn to lead.”
Nazareth returns four seniors who were all-ESCC performers in linebackers Tommy Gray (5-foot-11, 215 pounds) and Aneas White (5-11, 200); running back Josh Moore (5-9, 175); and defensive end Pat Vitek (6-1, 200).
Gray led the team in tackles (102). White, who is also a threat running the ball, had 55 tackles and three fumble recoveries. Vitek, also a state-qualifying wrestler, registered 71 tackles. Moore rushed for 1,244 yards and 11 TDs.
Nazareth will benefit greatly from the return of senior running back Rudy Romagnano, who ran for 741 yards on 76 carries and scored nine TDs before breaking a fibula and missing almost the entire playoff run. He will also start at defensive back for the first time.
Receiver Zach Manuel (6-2, 190), linebacker Dan DeSimone (5-10, 190) and defensive end Tyler Vandahm (6-4, 245) are also key returning senior starters.
Athletic junior Jake Bartels takes over as the starting quarterback. The 6-4, 200-pounder, who was on Nazareth’s last two state-qualifying baseball teams, appeared in last year’s quarterfinal loss.
“Even though it was only a small taste, it was on a big stage,” Racki said. “Not many sophomore quarterbacks get to experience that. I was impressed with how he handled it. That really motivated him in the offseason. He’s a great leader. He got the most captain votes out of any junior and is well-respected by his teammates. He’s a smart kid and knows how to communicate.
“Jake knows all he has around him to help, so he doesn’t have to put everything on his shoulders. He’s embracing it.”