High School Football

East St. Louis powers past Willowbrook; advances into Class 7A semifinals

East St. Louis senior quarterback Reyondous Estes thinks its been far to long since the program added another title to its list of accomplishments.

On Saturday, Estes and his Flyers teammates moved another step closer towards ending the drought.

Estes threw two touchdown passes — both to all-American wide receiver Jeff Thomas — while running backs Jarrell Anderson and Kevin Brown combined for five touchdowns as East St. Louis defeated Willowbrook 60-27 in a Class 7A quarterfinal in Villa Park.

“East St. Louis is called the City of Champions. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to win one,” Estes said. “Today we had a little lull midway through the third quarter. Coach (Darren) Sunkett has been on us, telling is that we have to put four complete quarters of football together. We didn’t quite do that today, but we were able to win the football game. The goal is to win the state title. We’ve still got two more games to win.”

The top-ranked Class 7A team in the state all year, East St. Louis (12-0) was in cruise control midway through the third quarter, leading 40-7 following a 69-yard run by Thomas. But the Warriors, coming off two straight upset wins, fought back.

Willowbrook (8-4), getting a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback MJ Ranieri, scored three times in a little over six minutes to climb back with 40-27 with still over nine minutes left in the game.

But the Flyers responded by marching 54 yards on seven plays. Estes went the final 10 yards for a score as East St. Louis took a 46-27 lead with 6:14 remaining.

Brown then added scoring runs of 44 yards and five yards late in the fourth quarter as as the Flyers move into the semifinals next week. It will be the Flyers’ first appearance in the semifinals since the 2013 season. East St. Louis last won the state championship in 2008.

The win puts East St. Louis into a semifinal game next week against the winner of the Rolling Meadows-Lisle Benet Academy quarterfinal round game on Saturday. The final score was unavailable at press time. The date, time and site of the semifinal will be announced on either Sunday or Monday.

Sunkett, who led the Flyers to its 2008 state title, said his team was able to move the football well against the smaller, but quick Warriors.

And they did it by establishing the run. With Anderson scoring on runs of two and five yards and finishing with 162 for the game and Brown running for 118 and three scores, the Flyers finished with over 330 yards on ground. Thomas, showing his blazing speed, added a 62-yard gallop.

“We felt it was key that we come out and establish the run,” Sunkett said. “We feel that with our size up front and the guys that we have running the football, that there aren’t many defenses that can stop us. Today was another example of that. I thought we did a good job on defense. I don’t think we gave them much in the first half. This is a good win and I thought we played well. But this football team has some goals that it wants to reach and we’re not there yet.”

Key sequence

The Flyers goal was to get out to a good start and thanks in a large part to Thomas, the Flyers did. Ranked as one of the top receivers in the nation, Thomas caught five passes for 110 yards and scored three touchdowns.

Thomas put East St. Louis ahead to stay with less than three minutes gone when he got open over the middle and hauled in a 29-yard strike from Estes for the Flyers first score.

Two minutes later, Thomas returned a punt back 35 yards inside the Warriors 25-yard line. Anderson then tallied on a 2-yard run and with still three minutes remaining in the opening quarter, East St. Louis led 14-0.

Thomas then added a 23-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter and gave the huge following of over 800 Flyers fans who made the trip north a thrill when he ran 69 yards for a touchdown as the Flyers lead grew to 40-7.

Thomas, like all of the Flyers and their fans, had a few anxious minutes early in the fourth quarter when the lead went from 33 points to 13 in that six minute span.

“Yes, I was a little nervous. But I have confidence in my teammates. We just had to make a play and we did,” Thomas said. “We were able to get off to a quick start today which helped.”

But the Warriors didn’t quit as they cut the lead to 40-27 early in the fourth quarter.

“The kids didn’t quit and I knew we wouldn’t,” Warriors coach Nick Hildreth said. “The keys to the football game were that we couldn’t move the football early, especially on the ground. I think maybe we had 1 first down the first 15 minutes of the game. Also we needed to make them drive the football 80 yards on us in order to score. I think their first four touchdown drives were all under 50 yards. We didn’t have an answer for their big plays.”