Mark Chambers knew last June that this edition of East St. Louis basketball was going to be special.
“Our motto has been ‘strive for greatness, destination Peoria,’” Chambers said on a conference call Wednesday.
Now they’re in Peoria for the IHSA State Finals for the first time since Darius Miles led the Flyers there in 2000.
This year’s edition wasn’t alive during that run but they’re back to put East Side back on the statewide map. The Flyers (28-6) will get their first crack in a Class 3A semifinal against Peoria Manual at 1 p.m.
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“It’s good to bring our school back,” St. Louis recruit Terrance Hargrove Jr. said. “We’ve got our fans behind us. We’re out here as a family and we’re going to get this win.”
For two members of the team, it’s their second trip to state, albeit in different ways. Chambers wanted his team to experience what he went through as the starting point guard on Lincoln’s first of three state championships beginning in 1987.
“I wanted to get back here so the kids could experience it,” Chambers said. “I’ve experienced it as a player and as a coach at Cahokia (in 2013). I’ve been telling them from day one that I want them to experience it so they can go and tell the stories from it 20-to-30 years from now. They’ve really worked hard to get to this point.”
Cahokia transfer Elijah Rice knows what it takes to win state. He did so with Cahokia Wirth in the 2015 IESA Eighth Grade Class 4A State Tournament.
He had his doubts when moving to East St. Louis but now he wants to win it for a community that’s accepted him.
“It feels awesome because they’re real supportive of their kids,” Rice said. “By me being a part of it, it made me feel much more confident about myself, confident about the season and everybody there. I want to do it for everybody (in East St. Louis) because if it weren’t for them, my confidence would be down and I don’t know where I’d be.”
One of Chambers focal points was to beef up the schedule, which resulted in playing some of the state’s best teams, such as beating Chicago Orr, which won its third-straight Class 2A state title last weekend. It also included games against out-of-state teams like St. Louis Vashon, Detroit Ford and Indianapolis Warren Central, among others.
“The process has been difficult but the way we looked at it, we wanted to be difficult,” Chambers said. “We wanted to have to work for it. Even the last game against (Springfield) Southeast (56-52), that was a great, tough game and we’ve had a lot of those. We’re battle-tested and we’re ready to go.”