East St. Louis Senior High School has been electrified by the football Flyers' run at a 7A state championship and the much-anticipated announcement of five-star basketball recruit Jeremiah Tilmon's college choice.
In the midst of it all is Phillip Gilbert, the second-year head basketball coach who still has to prepare the Flyers for their season opener against Champaign Central Tuesday.
Has all the excitement been a distraction for his players? No, he insists, it’s a catalyst.
"With me working here, I interact with the guys all the time," said Gilbert. "You know, Jeremiah has that pressure off of him now so he's dialed in and I tell the football guys to take it one sport at a time, take care of your business, win your state championship, and use that momentum to roll on in basketball."
Gilbert, an East St. Louis alum and former Bradley University star, led the Flyers to a 12-14 record in his first season. He has since lost nine seniors to graduation, including top scorer Patrick Baxter (8.1 points, 5 rebounds per game), Marquise Chairs (7.1 points per game), and Antonio Johnson (6.2 points, 4.3 rebounds).
But his tenure as head coach got a big shot in the arm with the return of Tilmon, who departed East Side for a season at La Lumiere in LaPorte, Indiana.
The 6-foot-11, 245-pound center is ranked among scouting web sites anywhere from the 19th to 25th best recruit in the nation and he led La Lumiere to the Indiana state finals as a junior. He picked the University of Illinois over North Carolina, Kansas, Texas, and Missouri, among others.
Tilmon gives the Flyers the physical presence under the goal they'll need to complete in the Southwestern Conference, which is deep with big men in the paint. He'll be matching muscle with the likes of Edwardsville's A.J. Epenesa (6-5, 260), a five-star football recruit committed to Iowa, and Belleville West's Tyler Dancy (6-7, 276).
"Adding Jeremiah would be transformative to any basketball program," Gilbert said. "You can see in his body how much he's matured. He's strong, but not only that, he can move his feet like a guard and can jump outside and shoot from 18 feet.
"Jeremiah's upside is unlimited."
Tilman won't have to be a one-man show.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior point guard Arthur Carter averaged 7.8 points and 2.5 rebounds last season and could have a Division-I college future ahead of him. Illinois State, Indiana State and Tennessee State have shown preliminary interest, Gilbert said.
"He's strong, very physical," Gilbert said. "He doesn't give you a lot of moves, because he goes right after it. If you get in front of him and want to take a charge, you're going to feel it."
Kerion Chairs (5-8, 158) and Reyondous Estes (6-1, 170), the Missouri-bound East Side quarterback, will be the other two starters in Gilbert's three-guard set. Left-handed senior Travion Vickers (6-0, 158) and junior Zachery Forest (5-11, 160) also will be part of a deep rotation.
"We're pretty deep. I may use eight guys in a game," Phillip said. "I have a philosophy that what's working is what you go with. It might be one person this game and another on a different day."
An intriguing addition to the starting five is sophomore Terrence Hargrove, a 6-foot-5, 195-pound power forward.
In 19 games as a freshman, Hargrove averaged 5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. He returns with some varsity experience, 12 additional pounds of lean muscle, and Tilmon to clear his way to the inside.
"He's a great kid, a straight-A student and comes from a really good family, which shows in his maturity," Gilbert said. "He's got a ways to go — any 15-year-old does — but this kid is a work-a-holic and a sponge for learning things. His upside is tremendous, it's just a matter of him continuing to mature in his body and getting a little stronger."
The Flyers will be at the Adam Lopez Country Financial Thanksgiving Tournament at Springfield Lanphier High School beginning Tuesday. Southwestern Conference play begins Dec. 3 against Belleville East at the Vadalabene Center on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.