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Former NFL lineman John Clay has Cahokia High School football program back on the map

Cahokia High School football coach John Clay knows all about being at the pinnacle of his sport.

A native of St. Louis, Clay was a standout offensive lineman at Cedar Hill, (Mo.) Northwest High School and went on to become an All-American at the University of Missouri. So accomplished was the 6-foot-5 300-pound Clay that he became the first-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987.

Clay would go on to play one season each with the Raiders and San Diego Chargers.

Now, 31 years after hanging up his helmet and shoulder pads for good, Clay is leading a football program of his own. Clay, 54, is currently in his third season as the head coach at Cahokia High School. On Saturday, he will lead the Comanches into a second game against South Seven Conference rival Carbondale.

Making their first playoff appearance since 2009, the Comanches (9-1) opened postseason play last week with a 22-6 win over Mount Zion. Clay was an assistant coach at East St. Louis for several years under head coach Darren Sunkett before heading his own program in Cahokia.. And, after leading the program to seven wins the past two years, he now has Cahokia a win away from a berth in the Class 5A quarterfinals.

“Did we expect to be here? I can honestly say that yes we did,’’ Clay said before practice on Wednesday. “When I saw the way these kids worked all summer, I knew we had a great shot to get into the playoffs. The kids set a goal of getting here and they have achieved that goal.

“We don’t have a lot of kids. But the ones we do have, I just love them to death. They are all great kids. They’re enjoying this ... the playoff atmosphere. It’s been a long (time) since they’ve had it around here. They missed it.’’

Although Cahokia doesn’t have a lot of depth, it doesn’t lack in talent.

The South Seven Conference champions have used the offense and leadership of senior quarterback Malik Shaw and running back Vincent Perry to lead a unit which has been key during the current eight-game winning streak. But Shaw and Perry are just two of the seniors who have led the Comanches successful season.

“It was tough for me, the coaches and especially the kids in the first two years. But while we didn’t win as many games as we would have liked, we were molding the program to where wanted it,’’ Clay said. “The difference this year has been the senior class. The attitude, the work ethic both on the football field and in the classroom, by that group of kids has been outstanding from day one. That type of attitude just trickles down to the younger kids.’’

Perry has been outstanding in the backfield, running for 1,122 yards and five touchdowns, while Shaw has added nearly 600 yards and eight touchdowns. The 6-1, 185-pound Shaw has also thrown for 1,589 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“We lost a lot of kids on the offensive line last year and we’ve had some players step up and do a great job up front for us,’’ Clay said. “Vincent (Perry) has done a great job of running for us as well.

“Malik (Shaw) has been unbelievable in running our offense. He’s just so mature and a tremendous leader. He’s our captain and we expect that from him. But he’s the type of kid who wants the football at crunch time. As a coach you have to love that attitude.’’

On defense, senior linebacker Delarius Rogers (109 tackles) and highly-touted linebacker Emori Lee (107) tackles) lead the way for a unit which features 10 players with 40 more tackles and has allowed only 94 points all year

The Comanches-Carbondale game will be played at Cahokia beginning at 3 p.m. Cahokia defeated Carbondale 28-7 in week five of the regular season. Clay expects a much tougher game this time around.

“They are a very good football team,’’ Clay said. “They have a good quarterback and while they don’t have a lot of size , they are very quick and they like to play fast. Plus it’s the second time we’ve played them. It’s always tougher the second time.’’