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Nazareth’s JJ McCarthy at practice.
Nazareth’s JJ McCarthy at practice.
Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

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Quarterback and Michigan recruit JJ McCarthy leads top-ranked Nazareth’s quest for a perfect season

It isn’t all offense at Nazareth. The defense has several college-bound stars, including defensive linemen CJ West and Ryan Keeler and linebacker Marcus Griffin. 

Nazareth quarterback JJ McCarthy, just a junior, already has a state title. He led the Roadrunners to the Class 7A crown last season. He has a lofty national ranking and a scholarship to Michigan. But the area’s most highly-touted quarterback in years is quick to point out there is one thing he still wants: an undefeated season.

“There is not going to be a 13-1 record this season,” McCarthy said. “It will be undefeated. We are going into every single game with a different chip on our shoulder. Yeah, we won state but we did not like going 13-1. It will be 14-0.”

That will require beating Marist, the team that has beaten Nazareth in the regular season the past two years.

McCarthy’s talent and lofty aspirations are the major reason the Roadrunners being the season as the Sun-Times’ top-ranked team. There were rumors the past year or so that McCarthy was going to transfer to IMG Academy, a national powerhouse in Florida. That didn’t happen.

“I stayed because [Nazareth] is family,” McCarthy said. “I wanted to be the hometown guy. You don’t have the bonds at IMG like I have here. This is the kind of team I wanted to be a part of, the family-based environment. That’s why I stayed.”

McCarthy stayed and even more talent arrived. Three receivers transferred to Nazareth over the summer: Landon Morris from Indiana, Tanner Koziol from Lake Park and Billy O’Malley from Hinsdale Central.

Morris, a 6-6 junior, has an offer from Michigan. Tyler Morris, a talented sophomore, is a returning starter at receiver along with Breven Reifsteck. McCarthy also says to watch out for junior Drew Hughes: “he’s going to be an animal this year at tight end.”

Derrick Strongs, a 6-0, 180-pound senior, will start at running back.

“He was kinda under the radar last year because we had so many three-year starters,” Nazareth coach Tim Racki said. “But he had some monster games on special teams and carrying the ball. Now he’s put on muscle weight and with the way he can explode I think he’ll be someone that will open a lot of eyes.”

A talent like McCarthy sometimes comes with baggage. He’s a consensus national top 20 player in the 2021 class and a top five quarterback.

“[McCarthy] is anything but a prima donna,” Racki said. “You get a lot of kids that have that talent can have that creep in but he never does. It’s been an absolute dream coaching him. Everyone sees the highlights, they see the strength in his arm, the accuracy and the way he can move. But it is a credit to his mom and dad that he’s such a down to earth, humble kid. He’s a great teammate, always deflects his praise to his team. The guys love him in the locker room.”

It isn’t all offense at Nazareth. The defense has several college-bound stars, including defensive linemen CJ West and Ryan Keeler and linebacker Marcus Griffin.

“We have a lot of experience on defense,” Racki said. “We feel the defense will be ahead of the offense early on.”

That’s a scary thought for the rest of the state.

Nazareth schedule

Aug. 31 vs. St. Louis Cardinal Ritter
Sept. 6 vs. Curie
Sept. 13 vs. Fenwick
Sept. 20 at St. Laurence
Sept. 27 vs. Leo
Oct. 4 vs. De La Salle
Oct. 11 at Marist
Oct. 18 at Notre Dame
Oct. 26 at Benet

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