By Anna Hughes

It takes a lot to make a great baseball player: determination, grit, talent, and commitment.
The Nazareth Academy varsity team has lots of those. They’re the back-to-back IHSA 3A state champions (2022 and 2023). With two trophies in just two years, they’re a force to be reckoned with.
Led to victory by Coach Lee Milano, the boys are pursuing a “three-peat” in the 4A division this spring, although that’s not their focus just yet.

“Our job is to focus on today. And then the next day and then the next day and go from there. And then the byproduct of it is, hopefully we’re in Joliet on the second Saturday in June,” Milano said.

Assistant Coach Jim Thome, Joe Milano, Head Coach Lee Milano, Dominic Milano, and Anthony Milano

Milano is in his 25th year as head coach. Over 150 of his players have gone on to play at the collegiate level. A dozen have hit the jackpot and played in the pros. The culture he’s created both on and off the field is what inspires his players to trust him and dedicate themselves to the team.

“They have to buy in, right? They have to buy into, you know, something much bigger than themselves,” Milano said. “We talk about playing for the guys before us, playing for the guys next to us, and playing for the future guys that come after us.”

These teenage boys come to him, glove and dreams in hand, asking for an opportunity to prove themselves as players, and, eventually, as men. During their few years together, Milano understands the weight of his role in their lives. They look up to him as a teacher, a coach, and a friend.
“To play college Division I baseball, like college baseball at all, it’s a small percent. To go on and play pro ball, it’s an even smaller percent. To make it to the majors, even smaller, right?” Milano said. “But everybody’s gonna go on and be an adult, hopefully a productive citizen, a good family member. And that’s kind of what we try to instill in them.”

Next to Milano in the dugout is the Roadrunners’ secret weapon: MLB Hall of Famer Jim Thome. Thome’s son, Landon, is a sophomore on the team.

“I think for us academically, you know, Nazareth, the school…speaks for itself,” Thome said. “Yes, the baseball was a big part of that. But I think there’s so many great things that Nazareth has to offer.”

Milano and the team appreciate the wisdom, experience, and unparalleled skill that Coach Thome brings to the field. The boys greet him with a high five walking into practice, where Thome gets to focus on being a coach and a dad, and he’s happy that his son is part of this specific group of guys.

“When they’re out of school or off the field, they hang together. They just have a really, really close, close-knit bond and friendship,” Thome said.

The Nazareth Academy Roadrunners pose with the 2023 IHSA 3A State Championship trophy after their win.

Their success is about more than just talent; it’s about the connection, trust, and the bond these young men share – especially the six seniors who have played all four years on the varsity team.
“I can confidently say each and every player I’ve crossed paths with in the program throughout [my] time is one of my brothers. They are more than friends… I call them family,” four-year varsity starter Cooper Malamazian (Indiana University) said.

Every Friday night, the team gathers at a different player’s house for dinner. Sometimes it’s a home-cooked meal; other times it’s catered food fit for a group of growing student-athletes. Before each meal, the boys join hands in prayer. They all share what they’re thankful for: friends, food, a good grade on a hard test. It’s how they incorporate Nazareth’s mission outside of the classroom and off the field.

“[Nazareth] is a very unique, very unique place. I’m a true believer in this education here,” Milano said. “My four boys all graduated from here. So, you know, I bleed blue. Because I believe in this place. We have phenomenal kids.”

Milano’s philosophy is certainly working. The six, four-year varsity players are all headed off to play D-I baseball in the fall. But they’re taking more than just their gloves with them.

“Each coach has put their utmost into making us better athletes over the years,” John Hughes (University of North Carolina) said. “But since day one, the coaches have also instilled my teammates and me with the values and lessons to have a successful life past baseball and have made us better men.”

It takes determination, grit, talent, and commitment to make a great player. But it takes more – loyalty, dedication, friendship, faith and love – to make a great team. ■

At the time of publication, the Roadrunners had a 21-0 record for the season.  The IHSA Regional Finals begin on May 22.  Visit nazarethacademy.com for more information on their upcoming game schedule.

The team celebrates after their championship win in 2023.

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