DEKALB – For Nashville’s football team, Friday’s 1 p.m. Class 2A championship game against Wilmington at Huskie Stadium represents more than a chance for the school’s first state title or the first state championship by a Southern Illinois team in 21 years.
It means a do-over of sorts for the Hornets.
“We were really disappointed when we made it up there in 2019 because we played a really bad game that day,” said coach Stephen Kozuszek of a 35-14 loss to Newman Central Catholic. “It was the worst feeling in the world because you don’t know if you’ll get another chance to get there again.”
As it turns out, this is Nashville’s second chance. It traveled an eerily similar road to the one two years ago, bumping off Bismarck-Henning, Pana and Decatur St. Teresa after easy first round wins. But the story of how the Hornets rallied to stop St. Teresa 37-35 on Saturday won’t be forgotten for a long time.
They were down 35-21 with under 8 ½ minutes left before scoring two touchdowns, having a game-tying PAT kick blocked and then driving down the field in the last 90 seconds to set up Eduardo Garibay’s game-winning 23-yard field goal with 3.9 seconds remaining.
“The roller-coaster of emotions in that game was awesome,” Kozuszek said. “To be able to do it in front of our home crowd was awesome. That we did that says so much about our kids. They didn’t panic on the last drive.”
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The way Nashville (12-1) did it illustrates how its offense has developed over the long season. It was a bit of a question mark three-plus months ago after losing two-year starter Cole Malawy at quarterback, but senior Kolten Gajewski has thrown for 2,128 yards and 28 touchdowns while running for 683 yards and 10 more scores.
Kozuszek tweaked the offense to suit Gajewski’s skills. He might not be the precise passer Malawy was at his best, but Gajewski is more of a dual threat who throws a good deep ball. With the personnel around him, Gajewski became a very nice fit for this version of a spread attack.
“The more games he played, the more you could see the confidence build in him from week to week,” Kozuszek said. “He helped us not only in the passing game, but in the running game. Teams couldn’t key off our running backs.”
The Hornets’ offense could best be described as equal opportunity. Want to keep Isaac Turner from beating you with great catches down the field? Then Connor Gladson (1,583 yards, 21 TDs) and Ian Blazier (520 yards, 10 TDs) will make you pay on the ground.
Sneak an extra guy into the box to shut down the running game? Say hello to Turner (75 catches, 1,289 yards, 19 TDs) and Ben Reid (17-479-9) making chunk plays and get ready to hear the marching band play the fight song.
For all of Nashville’s explosiveness – it scored 75 touchdowns and outscored opponents 531-172 – it will probably need its defense to step up if it’s to join the 2000 Harrisburg squad as the only state champs from south of I-64.
And the Hornets’ defense better be ready to buckle their chin straps and get physical. Wilmington (13-0) has thrown 13 passes all year, completing two for 51 yards. But the Wildcats haven’t needed to throw. They’ve run for 3,844 yards, with Colin James (1,361 yards, 18 TDs) and Jacob Friddle (1,313 yards, 18 TDs) playing starring roles.
“We try to run the ball and stop the run to get teams into second and third and long,” said Wilmington coach Jeff Reents. “I think we’ve played our best football in the playoffs.”
Wilmington’s double-wing offense is designed to beat you four yards at a time. Its linemen take toe-to-toe splits, which makes blitzing a risky proposition. And it’s only turned the ball over six times all year.
Simply put, for Nashville to turn its second chance into redemption and history, it has to do what no one else has been able to make the Wildcats do.
“It would help to get up early and get them out of their comfort zone,” Kozuszek said. “We have a chance to finish what we couldn’t get done two years ago. We are excited for the opportunity.”