Nazareth’s football team started this season with a talented cadre of skill players.
Junior quarterback J.J. McCarty, a Michigan recruit, headlined an impressive group of next-level players that would be the envy of nearly any high school coach in the country.
But the Roadrunners lacked experience and quality depth at five key spots that are essential for any state caliber team — the offensive line.
The Roadrunners had to replace the entire starting offensive line from last season’s Class 7A state championship team.
“We had five new guys that didn’t know each other,” Nazareth coach Tim Racki said. “It took some time for them to get better. It was a progression, from week to week but they kept grinding and getting better each week.”
The rebuilt offensive line of left tackle Ryan Keeler, left guard Jonathan Sarich, center Domenic Virelli, right guard Sean O’Hara and right tackle Lukas Salaviejus are an overlooked yet vital factor in the Roadrunners' (12-0) journey to Saturday’s 7A state semifinal matchup at Rolling Meadows (12-0).
Salaviejus admitted that building chemistry required some additional time that factored in some so-so performances early in the season. Besides enduring his own transition to a starter, Salaviejus had to adjust to playing more snaps on offense than his customary defensive line spot.
“It took us a couple of weeks,” he said. “Our new skill players came in and got along, but we had to build chemistry, come together and learn to pick each other us.
“We were all nervous playing in Week 1 against Cardinal Ritter. The whole offensive line was new. It wasn’t until about Week 3 against Fenwick that we came together. We were very aggressive in one-on-ones and we fought hard and started building a bond. That game, we were punishing the defensive line. We got our confidence from the Fenwick game.
“We started hanging out, picking each other up and gaining trust in each other and our assignments to protect the quarterback and run blocking.”
Although the Roadrunners boost one of the state’s top offensive units, Racki said the running game, particularly Derrick Strongs Jr., was affected the most by the massive upheaval on the O-line.
“We’re able to run the ball better now, and that showed against a tough defense in Batavia,” Racki said. “Our running game was huge in that game.”
Salaviejus said the offensive line faces another tough test against Rolling Meadows’ talented defensive front, led by Ball State recruit Nate Pedraza and Jose Aleman.
“When we play aggressive, it’s really hard to stop us in the running game and that opens up our passing game,” Salaviejus said. “We are really connected now. We did really well in the Batavia game.”
Tail of different quarterbacks
Listed at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Rolling Meadows senior quarterback Carson Schiller’s strength doesn’t lie in the measurable but rather the unmeasurable. His toughness and unflappable demeanor have the undefeated Mustangs envisioning a trip to the state championship game in DeKalb.
Time and time again, whether against Prospect (twice), Deerfield, Hersey or Wheaton Warrenville South, Schiller’s been steady and efficient in leading the offense.
“He’s not going to win any eye tests, but he has the heart of a champion and is a fierce competitor and hates to lose,” Rolling Meadows coach Matt Mishler said. “He’s made couple of big throws in the second half against Wheaton Warrenville South. You can count on him making a big play.”
Meanwhile, Racki noted the 6-2 McCarthy, a five-star recruit, took another step in his progression against Batavia’s talented defense.
“J.J. had a great game on Saturday,” he said. “He was more Tom Brady-like. He stayed in the pocket, looked off (Batavia’s) safety well. Batavia had a really good safety.”
Rolling Meadows senior linebacker Sean Nolan said stopping the Roadrunners’ offense presents a stiff challenge for the defense.
“Their offense is great, but if we stop the run game, and our secondary does the job after that, we should okay,” Nolan said.