EAST ST. LOUIS — Normal Community packed an early wallop Saturday, but the East St. Louis Flyers countered with the knockout blows.
The Ironmen grabbed a 9-7 lead early in the second quarter, then watched the Flyers reel off 25 consecutive points en route to a 38-16 victory in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs.
The barrage began when senior quarterback Dominic Nelson hit freshman Jeff Thomas with a short pass to the right side that Thomas turned into an 87-yard touchdown. On the previous play, a 99-yard TD run by senior Greg Taylor was nullified by a holding call.
"That was a big score for us," Taylor said of Thomas' catch-and-run that put the Flyers ahead 13-9 with 8:04 left in the first half. "It gave us all the momentum and took their momentum.
"I did everything I had to do to try to take it to the end zone. I took it and (officials) called it back, and then the freshman (Thomas) stepped up and made a big play like a senior."
Thomas had another TD catch from Nelson later in the second quarter and added a third scoring grab in the third quarter as the Flyers (8-3) advanced to the quarterfinals. East Side will play at Providence (7-4), of New Lenox, probably Saturday.
"We stayed composed and we made plays when we had to," Flyers coach Darren Sunkett said, underscoring the quick strike after Taylor's long run was negated. "That's all part of our guys keeping their composure. We fought through adversity. You take one play back, and we came back and struck with another big play. That's just a great effort on our kids' part."
East St. Louis' other touchdowns came on a 1-yard run by Nelson in the second quarter, a 2-yard dive by Taylor in the third quarter and a 45-yard runback of an onside kick by Normal senior Cameron Donaby in the fourth quarter.
"That's a very good football team," Normal coach Wes Temples said. "That may be a very, very special football team, so I tip my hat to them. You just can't simulate that type of speed. Throughout, I thought our kids played hard and they left it all here. But that physicality and speed, you can't simulate that.
"We handled it pretty well early. But as we got to the end, we got worn down and their speed took over."
A 23-yard field goal by senior Grant Donath gave the Ironmen (7-4) a 3-0 lead with 4:16 left in the first quarter. Nelson's TD run put the Flyers on top 7-3 with 10:53 left in the second period.
But Normal didn't trail for long.
Senior Jackson Leffler recovered a backward pass from Nelson and gave the Ironmen the ball on the Flyers' 35. Four plays later, senior quarterback Colin Olsen hit sophomore Alec Bozarth with a 19-yard TD pass. The two-point conversion run failed, but Normal led 9-7 with 8:43 left in the first half.
Taylor, for one, was concerned at that point.
"They were very physical," the Missouri recruit said. "Hats off to those guys. They came out of the gate playing real hard. We had to pick it up and take it up another level."
The Flyers began their ensuing possession at their own 2, and a penalty pushed them back to the 1. Taylor was almost dropped in the end zone for a safety, but eluded his pursuers and raced down the left sidelines and into the end zone.
The holding call, however, made it a 12-yard gain, and Nelson followed with his first TD pass to Thomas.
"It deflates you," Temples said. "Great athletes are going to make those plays. We preached all week: 'They're going to have big plays. Let's not give up big touchdowns.' Unfortunately, we did."
Nelson and Thomas hooked up again on an 8-yard touchdown with 53.5 seconds left in the half that put the Flyers on top 20-9 at the intermission.
Thomas beat Ironmen senior Easton Schaber along the right sidelines for a 27-yard TD pass from Nelson on the Flyers' first possession of the second half, growing the lead to 26-9 with 9:59 left in the third quarter.
Taylor's 2-yard TD made it 32-9 with 24 seconds left in the third quarter. After Schaber had a 17-yard TD catch from Olsen to bring Normal within 32-16, Donaby responded with his kickoff return.
Nelson was 10-for-16 for 243 yards and three touchdowns, while Taylor rushed 23 times for 114 yards and Thomas had four catches for 131 yards.
"They're all big," Sunkett said of the victory. "This here is just one game out of the five. We've got another one next week. We'll start preparing for that tonight. There's no time to celebrate."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.