'We're fired up': Peoria High football runs past Morris to secure a spot in title game

Adam Duvall
Journal Star

PEORIA — Malachi Washington was even surprised with himself.

The Peoria High running back had just helped put the Lions into the Illinois High School Association Class 5A football state championship with a 76-56 semifinal win over Morris on Saturday afternoon at Peoria Stadium. Washington was on the field celebrating with the Peoria High faithful when he was told he rushed for 383 yards.

That’s right, nearly 400 yards.

“I didn’t even know,” Washington said as his smile grew bigger as the news sunk in. “That feels great. We’re going to state, man. It’s crazy. First-year starting running back. It’s crazy.”

After the 5-foot-10, 206-pound senior fumbled on the second offensive play of the game, Washington made sure the Lions wouldn’t be denied a victory on their home field. He then took his next handoff for 76 yards and the first of his five touchdowns.

Peoria running back Malachi Washington celebrates a touchdown against Morris in the first half of their Class 5A football state semifinal Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Peoria Stadium.

Washington carried it 30 times, adding scoring runs of 6, 46, 42 and 56 behind the offensive line of left tackle Dominic Bautista, left guard JaQuarius Green, center Travanti Brown, right guard Matheno Fuller and right tackle AJ Roscoe.

“Me and my boys are very blessed,” the all-stater Washington said. “We worked so hard to be here. We didn’t take anything for granted.”

Peoria High (12-1) heads to Champaign for a 10 a.m. Saturday meeting with LaGrange Park Nazareth Academy (9-4) for the 5A title. The Lions finished No. 7 in the final poll by The Associated Press, while Nazareth was 10th.

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This is the program’s third title game appearance and first since winning the 2016 5A crown.

"We've tried not to talk about it, but it always gets brought up," Peoria High coach Tim Thornton said of making the title game. "We bring it up at the beginning of every week and then shut it down for the rest of the week.

"This week, we're going to talk about it all week long. We're fired up."

Morris went ahead 8-0, taking advantage of Washington’s turnover with an 11-yard TD from A.J. Zweeres on fourth down. But Peoria High regrouped, scoring 46 first-half points started by that long Washington score, then got a lasting lead off a 5-yard plunge from Frank Odom.

The change-of-pace senior back ran for 134 yards on eight carries along with a 67-yard, third-quarter touchdown. Odom and Washington were responsible for 517 of Peoria High’s 597 total yards.

“We been talking about making it to state for a minute,” Odom said. “We’ve been preparing for it for a long time.”

Added Thornton, “Man, I was hoping we would be able to run the ball. I thought on paper we matched up well. We got some real good play out of edge blockers and o-line. Malachi just got to the point where they didn’t want to tackle him anymore. I thought he did a really good job. (We) lean on the run game and it paid off for us.”

The Peoria High defense brings down Morris running back Sam Reddinger in the first half of their Class 5A football state semifinal Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Peoria Stadium.

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As much as the offensive was impressive, the Peoria High defense came up huge in the final 2:30 of the first half. First, linebacker Kenny Rutherford picked off a Carter Button pass and raced 32 yards for a TD.

Kaleb Lawson had a defensive score of his own on the next Morris possession. The senior linebacker picked up a mishandled snap by Zweeres and ran it in for a 46-14 lead with 67 seconds left on the second-quarter clock.

“It was a bad snap,” Lawson said, “so I knew I could get there because I’m fast. I just basically went for him, hit the tackle, picked up the ball and went to go score like we practice in practice.”

When Peoria High quarterback Tino Gist wasn’t handing off to Washington or Odom, the junior looked sharp in the pocket. He watched as Ricky Hearn took a screen pass for 49 yards and a score late in the third quarter.

Gist, a 6-foot-1, 181-pounder, finished with 82 yards on 5-for-9 passing. Hearn had all but one of those yards on four catches.

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“It’s surreal,” Gist said. “We’ve been working for this since last winter … Everybody just talking about this moment right here how we were going to make it to the state finals.

“We got it done. We got one more. We're not done yet. We need that (championship) ring, then the job will be done.”

Adam Duvall is a Journal Star sports reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @AdamDuvall.

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Peoria High head coach Tim Thornton talks with his team late in the first half of their Class 5A football state semifinal against Morris on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Peoria Stadium.

5:03 p.m. — FINAL: Peoria High 76, Morris 56

The Lions are headed to the Class 5A state championship game with a semifinal win over Morris.

4:54 p.m. — Morris going down tough

Morris' Will Knapp scores again on a 25-yard TD catch to continue the late scoring barrage. There is some pushing between the teams on the failed PAT.

Peoria High 76, Morris 56 | 2:17, 4Q

4:45 p.m. — Morris keeps coming

Morris gets on the board late on a 27-yard pass from quarterback Carter Buttons to Gage Phillips, but it won't be enough.

Peoria High 76, Morris 50 | 2:44, 4Q

4:38 p.m. — Lions roar

Malachi Washington, again. The big running back goes 56 yards for his fourth touchdown and the Lions are running away with this one. Washington is nearing 400 yards on the day. Two-point conversion pass to Ricky Hearn is good.

Peoria High 76, Morris 42 | 5:20, 4Q

4:30 p.m. — One play later ... again

Malachi Washington goes for 42 yards on the very next play to put Peoria High back on the board. The Lions have scored their highest single-game total this season. Washington has 319 yards and four TDs.

Peoria High 68, Morris 42 | 7:35, 4Q

4:27 p.m. — Morris chipping away as clock dwindles

Will Knapp with a 6-yard touchdown run and Morris keeps alive its slim hopes.

Peoria High 60, Morris 42 | 7:47, 4Q

4:10 p.m. — Nazareth wins the other Class 5A semifinal

LaGrange Park Nazareth (9-4) had advanced to the Class 5A state championship game with a 10-7 win over top-ranked Sycamore (12-1). Naz will play the winner of this game between Peoria High and Morris at 10 a.m. next Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Peoria High 60, Morris 34 | 12:00, 4Q

4:05 p.m. — One play later ...

Lions quarterback Tino Gist hits Ricky Hearn on a bubble screen and he streaks 49 yards for a touchdown. The two-point conversion try is intercepted.

Peoria High 60, Morris 34 | 2:31, 3Q

4:01 p.m. — Morris adds another touchdown

AJ Zweeres grabs a short touchdown reception from Carter Button to pull Morris within three scores.

Peoria High 54, Morris 34 | 2:53, 3Q

3:48 p.m. — Morris doesn't stop fighting

Morris drives right back down the field in less than a minute, staving off the running clock with a TD pass from Carter Button to Will Knapp.

Peoria High 54, Morris 26 | 7:00, 3Q

3:43 p.m. — Rumbling to the rescue

Big Peoria High back Frank Odom goes 67 yards for a touchdown to answer Morris' multiple onside kick recoveries. Malachi Washington adds a two-point conversion and the Lions are back in control.

Peoria High 54, Morris 20 | 7:52, 3Q

3:34 p.m. — Morris opens with a score

Morris recovers an onside kick, hits a long pass and then adds a 1-yard TD run on the first drive of the third quarter.

Peoria High 46, Morris 20 | 11:28, 3Q

Peoria High's Rontavis Lee, right, puts a hit on Morris quarterback Carter Button during their Class 5A football state semifinal Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Peoria Stadium.

3:13 p.m. — HALFTIME: Peoria High 46, Morris 14

The host Lions have taken control in the second quarter, outscoring Morris 30-6 in the period to turn a one-possession game into a runaway.

Peoria High RB Malachi Washington has 231 yards and three TDs on 17 carries. Frank Odom with 50 yards and a TD. The Morris offense has 119 total yards.

Sycamore leads LaGrange Park Nazareth 7-3 in the other Class 5A semifinal.

3:09 p.m. — Defense dominating for Peoria High

Kaleb Lawson scores another defensive touchdown, recovering a fumble and returning it 12 yards for a touchdown. The Lions are dominating in all facets, well on their way to a spot in Champaign.

Peoria High 46, Morris 14 | 1:07, 2Q

3:02 p.m. — Interception return gives Peoria High control

Gary Rutherford steps in front of slant play, intercepts the pass and takes it 32 yards for a pick-six. Pass complete on two-point conversion.

Peoria High 40, Morris 14 | 2:30, 2Q

2:59 p.m. — Lions are roaring

Malachi Washington keeps grinding, weaving down the field for a long 46-yard run and touchdown.

Peoria High 32, Morris 14 | 3:27, 2Q

2:56 p.m. — Peoria High gets a big stop

The Lions stop Morris on fourth down and take over around their 20.

Peoria High 24, Morris 14 | 5:30, 2Q

2:43 p.m. — Peoria High playing tough

Frank Odom is playing like Frank the Tank. He's ramming his way down the field, helping the Lions set up another TD run by Malachi Washington. Washington adds the two-point conversion.

Peoria High 24, Morris 14 | 8:31, 2Q

2:35 p.m. — Morris runs back into it

Morris running back AJ Zweeres takes the snap in the wildcat and scores on a 3-yard run.

Peoria High 16, Morris 14 | 10:22, 2Q

2:31 p.m. — End of the first quarter

Morris is driving as the first quarter ends.

Peoria High 16, Morris 8 | END 1Q

2:25 p.m. — Peoria High balance in action

The Lions mix runs and passes to drive right down the field and grab a lead on a 6-yard TD run from Frank Odom late in the first quarter. Odom set up the TD run with a tough long run on the previous play.

Peoria High 16, Morris 8 | 2:12, 1Q

2:15 p.m. — Peoria High answers

Seconds later, Malachi Washington takes off on the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, going all the way for the 76-yard touchdown. Washington adds the two-point conversion to tie the game.

Morris 8, Peoria High 8 | 1Q

2:11 p.m. — Morris strikes first

Morris strikes first, turning a fumble into a touchdown run by A.J. Zweeres with 7:55 remaining in the first. After a penalty, Morris adds a quarterback sneak from Carter Button on the PAT.

Morris 8, Peoria High 0 | 1Q

1:56 p.m. — For a spot in the title game

Kickoff is minutes away as the winner here advances to the Class 5A championship game scheduled for 10 a.m. next Saturday against either Sycamore (12-0) or LaGrange Park Nazareth Academy (8-4).