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Peoria High football team eyes its 2nd IHSA state championship

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Peoria High School's football team will face Nazareth Academy in the IHSA Class 5A state championship Saturday morning at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Head coach Tim Thornton credits an “innate toughness” among his Peoria High School football players for carrying the team to the brink of a state championship.

“I think our kids go through so much on a daily basis, in the community or at school, whatever the case may be, that when we ask more from them and they ask more from each other, they've got just a generational toughness that they can pull from,” said Thornton.

Six years after the program won its first Illinois High School Association title, the Lions will look to secure another Class 5A trophy Saturday when they face LaGrange Park Nazareth Academy in a 10 a.m. game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

“The kids are just on cloud nine and ready to roll, excited that we're still practicing,” Thornton said Monday during an IHSA conference call with media. “So many of their friends are either at home or (starting) basketball season, and they're just excited to be playing and to be in it and have the opportunity.

“We talked all year about earning more games and we’ve earned every game we could participate in. So now we’ve just got to go finish the last one and see how it plays out.”

Featuring an up-tempo offense, an aggressive defense and unorthodox strategy of frequent onside kickoffs, Peoria has built a 12-1 record by averaging just under 50 points per game in its wins. The Lions surged into the title game with a 76-56 semifinal victory over Morris.

“It looks like a decent day for us,” Thornton said of getting to see that many points on Peoria’s side of the scoreboard. “Sometimes it works out that way if the other team scores and it's kind of a back and forth situation. I think just our pace lends it to it; every once in a while, that kind of thing is going to happen.”

The Lions also were 12-1 going into the 2016 championship game, then capped off that banner season with a 62-48 victory over Vernon Hills. Thornton said a second trip to the final is a little easier logistically from a coaching standpoint, adding this playoff run has some similarities to 2016 — but it's a whole new experience.

“I feel like we're just in a different place as a program,” he said. “I felt like we've grown since then, with the way we kind of take care of business and the way that the kids relate to each other and things of that nature. I think this group really, really, really cares about each other and pulls each other along really well.”

Nazareth Academy enters the title game at 9-4 and has won seven in a row. Contrasting Peoria’s high-scoring semifinal, the Roadrunners are coming off a 10-7 victory over Sycamore. Thornton said Nazareth’s speed on defense is a major concern.

“They've got several ballplayers and playmakers, so we're going to have to really take care of the ball and make sure that we execute at the level that we been executing — and try to get even a little better. It'll be a big challenge against their defense for sure,” said Thornton.

“Defensively, we've got to be extremely technically based. We've got to make sure that we're disciplined and with our eyes and our hands and just make sure we're not giving up the big plays. They've got a few guys on their side of the ball that can really go.”

The Lions' offense is led by senior running back Malachi Washington, who racked up 3,073 rushing yards and scored 47 touchdowns. Junior quarterback Tino Gist totaled 2,241 passing yards with 29 TDs.

Defensively, junior linebacker Gary Rutherford registered team-highs with 91 tackles and three interceptions. Senior lineman Landon Newby-Holesome and senior safety Kenny Rutherford followed with 75 and 60 tackles, respectively.

“One thing we do well is just worry about ourselves,” said Thornton. “We're going to look at how they line up and the things that they do, and then we'll just get back to focusing on: “what do we have to do against that scheme?” We don't put as much attention on who the other team is and what they've done because we can't control that. So we just worry about the things we can control.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.