High School Football

East St. Louis Flyers rely on big-play defense, big-time players

East St. Louis' Jeff Thomas intercepts the ball in Friday’s Southwestern Conference win over Edwardsville.
East St. Louis' Jeff Thomas intercepts the ball in Friday’s Southwestern Conference win over Edwardsville. dholtmann@bnd.com

In a battle between two of the top high school football defenses south of Chicago, the East St. Louis Flyers came out on top against Southwestern Conference rival Edwardsville.

Led by heat-seeking senior linebacker James Knight, the Flyers had five quarterback sacks, three interceptions and also returned a fumble for a touchdown in a 20-10 victory that snapped the Tigers’ 30-game conference winning streak.

“The ‘D’ (defense) played lights out and we expect that of them,” said Flyers coach Darren Sunkett, whose team improved to 6-0. “James (Knight) was all over the field.”

The Edwardsville defense, led by Iowa recruit A.J. Epenesa, also played well. The Tigers held the Flyers to a season-low 20 points and one of the TDs came on a fumble recovery that began with Knight’s tipped pass that he turned into an interception.

Edwardsville scored all 10 of its points in the first quarter on a 1-yard TD run by Dionte Rodgers and a 22-yard field goal by Division I prospect Riley Patterson.

Knight had a sack and an interception to go with nine tackles, while Tahler Cook had 10 tackles and a sack and Terrion Williams Jr. had eight tackles and a sack.

Ranked first in Class 7A in Illinois and first in the BND Large-School Poll, the Flyers are playing with a definite chip on their shoulders.

They were forced out of the state playoffs last season because of a teachers strike and the last of their area-record seven state titles came in 2008.

That may seem like an eternity for East Side fans in the City of Champions.

“It was a great ball club against a great ball club,” East St. Louis senior quarterback Reyondous Estes said. “We knew we had to come out and execute our offense and continue to put pressure on their offense. For us coming off a teachers strike, the guys were ready to unload.

“We came back this season and worked hard all summer. (That strike) put a sour taste in our mouths and we were determined to do whatever it took (Friday) to get it done.”

The elusive Estes, a Missouri recruit, didn’t put up huge numbers but made effective plays at big times.

“It was my biggest worry — and that’s no disrespect to him throwing and their passing game,” Edwardsville coach Matt Martin said. “He just extends plays. He gets first downs. He just creates with his legs. He’s a tremendous athlete.”

Estes scored on a 2-yard run and ran for 50 yards on eight carries, also completing 12-of-20 passes in the rain for 154 yards.

“Because of what we went through last year, this means a lot to me and my team,” Estes said. “We know we’re the best in the conference now.”

(Dean Criddle of the Belleville News-Democrat supplied information for this story).

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders