After taking a hiatus for a year, the East St. Louis City of Champions Classic returns with a pair top teams headlining the three-game gridiron extravaganza on Saturday at Clyde Jordan Stadium.
In search of its seventh straight trip to the state title game, five-time state champion Lombard Montini will make its second trip to East St. Louis in the last three years when they battle the seven-time state champion Flyers in the finale of the City of Champions Classic.
Class 5A state champions from 2009-12 and runner-up to Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin the past two years, the Broncos handled the Flyers 34-6 at the 2013 City of Champions Classic, then withstood a much stronger East St. Louis’ effort a year ago with a 46-32 win in suburban Lombard.
“I thought we played pretty well up there last year. We just came up a little short,’’ Flyers coach Darren Sunkett said. “Montini is a very well-coached football team that doesn’t make many mistakes.
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“This is another big game for our kids and this football program. You’ve got two of the top programs in the state going up against each other again. We’re healthy and ready to play.’’
The Flyers and Broncos junior-varsity teams will meet at noon in the day’s opening game and will be followed at 3 p.m. by a game between St. Louis schools Gateway and Confluence Academy. The Montini-East St. Louis game is set for 6 p.m.
Tickets will be available at the gate and are priced at $10.
Saturday’s game: Lombard Montini (1-0) at East St. Louis (1-0), Clyde Jordan Stadium, 6 p.m.
Rankings: Montini is ranked No. 2 in Class 6A state poll. East St. Louis is ranked first in Belleville News-Democrat large-school poll and No. 3 in the Class 7A state poll.
Battle of the best: Two of the most successful high school football programs in state history, the Broncos and Flyers have combined for 12 state championships, with East St. Louis winning seven.
Last meeting: Montini defeated East St. Louis 46-32 a year ago in Lombard.
Last week: Montini defeated Maine South 20-17. East St. Louis rallied from a 21-6 halftime deficit to defeat Chicago Simeon 28-21 in Chicago.
One of the dominant football programs in the state over the past decade, Montini has relied on a run-oriented offense and a stellar defense in the past, along with a system which makes few mistakes and quickly capitalizes on its opponents’ miscues. Such was the case last week when the Broncos held Maine South (ranked eighth in Class 8A) to 17 points.
Running back Prince Walker had a 60-yard touchdown, but led by senior quarterback Justin Blake, the Broncos are as balanced as they have been in years according to Sunkett. Blake threw for 209 yards and ran for 118 in their Week 1 win.
Walker also finished with 96 yards on 15 carries.
“It’s a different Montini team than we’ve played in the past,’’ Sunkett said. “They still come right at you, but this year, they’ve got more options because the quarterback (Blake) can both run and throw the football. It gives us another thing to be alert for and to be ready to defend.
“We’ve got a couple of things in mind on how we’re going to defend them. We’ll just see what they’re doing and make adjustments as need be during the game.’’
Walker, blessed with sprinter’s speed, rushed for 1,082 yards as a sophomore in 2014. Senior fullback-linebacker John Embrey adds power up the middle on both sides of the football.
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Simeon, ranked seventh in Class 7A, held junior all-state wide receiver Jeff Thomas to four catches for 37 yards, but the Flyers got big days from several other players including little-known running backs Kerion Chairs (13 attempts, 65 yards) and Perez Hall Jr. (4 attempts, 48 yards) to come away with the big win at Gately Stadium.
Junior quarterback Reyondus Estes threw for 117 yards and ran for 76 more as the Flyers settled down from a tough first half. Thomas will once again be a marked man, meaning other players must step up and produce.
“We were a little shaky in the first half, but we were playing a lot of young kids who were in their first varsity football game. We had to get the nerves out of the way in the first half. We had a few penalties which cost us a couple of big plays,’’ Sunkett said. “Once we settled in, I thought we played very well. To get a win like that against a quality football program like Simeon on the road was huge for these kids and or football program. Down 21-6, I was proud of how we fought back.’’
The Flyers defense is led by a quick and athletic secondary. Adrian Smith and James Knight had 10 tackles apiece against Simeon.
Next game: Montini will host Chicago St. Rita on Sept. 11. East St. Louis will play at Alton on Sept. 11.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2661.
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Granite City at Riverview Gardens, 1 p.m.
Crystal Lake at Cahokia, 3 p.m.
Montini at East St. Louis, 6 p.m.
Belleville West at Normal, 6 p.m.
Belleville East at Normal West, 7 p.m.