The East St. Louis Flyers began their quest this 2016 football season with the desire and talent to win the Class 7A state title.
Following a 20-0 semifinal win over the Benet Academy Redwings on Saturday, the Flyers are a win away from finishing their quest and making their dream a reality.
Junior running back Jarrell Anderson rushed for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and the Flyers defense held the Redwings offense in check throughout. East St. Louis earned its first state title game appearance since 2008.
Anderson, who rushed for 107 yards in the first half, provided the Flyers (13-0) with the only points they would need when he scored on a 23-yard run with 10 seconds left in the first quarter. The Flyers converted on the two-point conversion to take an 8-0 lead.
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Anderson added an 8-yard run, and quarterback Reyondous Estes fired a 32-yard touchdown to James Knight 54 seconds apart in the third quarter to add to the Flyers’ lead.
After the final seconds ran off the clock, Flyers players and coaches celebrated on the field, then sprinted towards their locker room for their own private celebration.
Coach Darren Sunkett, who guided the Flyers to the seventh state title in school history in 2008, said getting to the state title game was one of the goals at the beginning of the season.
“These things are not easy to get. You’ve got 700-some schools at the beginning of the year trying to get here. Only 16 teams get to this point, and only eight teams will win it,” Sunkett said. “What these kids did here today was no easy feat, and by getting to the championship game, (they) have achieved one of their goals.”
East St. Louis will take on Plainfield North for the 7A title at Memorial Stadium in Champaign at 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 26. Plainfield North defeated Oak Park Fenwick 18-17 in overtime in the other semifinal game Saturday.
The trip will be the 11th in school history for East St. Louis which is 7-3 all time in championship games.
With temperatures in the upper 30’s and strong winds blowing at kickoff, the running game figured to be key for both teams. Anderson, who finished with 182 yards, did his part. The Flyers defense did, too, by pitching its sixth shutout of the season.
Benet finished the day with negative-29 yards on the ground.
“What the defense did today was no surprise. Those guys have been great all year and they were again today,” Anderson said. “With the way the weather was today, we knew we were going to have to be able to run the football. The guys up front (offensive) line did a great job, and we were able to run the football well.
“What does this mean to me? I’ve never been this far in the playoffs before. We were one game and out where I played last year and so to be able to get to the state title game is great. Now we’re going to win it. We can win it.”
Benet (10-3) also came up big in the first half on the defensive end. Four times East St. Louis had the ball in the red zone, but East St. Louis only led 8-0 at halftime.
“We had some opportunities in the first half in the red zone that we didn’t convert on. But what it showed was that we could move the football,” Sunkett said. “We punched it in when we needed to and scored enough to get the win.
“Our defense was just great again today. We knew that they (Benet) would try to spread the field and move the ball down the field. Our defense was huge again, just like it has been all year.”
Sunkett wasn’t the only coach who was impressed with the Flyers defense. Benet coach Pat New said the Flyers were just too athletic for his team to handle.
“They were too quick and athletic for us to match up. That’s it right there.” New said. “It was a great season, and I couldn’t be more proud of this group of kids. ... The determination on this team is memorable, and you can’t underestimate it because big reason why we got as far as we did.”
All-American wide receiver Jeff Thomas made his presence felt in the third quarter. Held to just one catch in the first half, Thomas set up Anderson’s second touchdown when he hauled in a 52-yard reception from Estes late in the period, and the Flyers had the ball inside the Redwings 25-yard line.
When Anderson scored on an eight-yard run with 2:58 left in the period, the Flyers led 14-0. It didn’t take long for East St. Louis to strike again.
Two plays following the score, Thomas intercepted a pass from Jack Sznajder, one of three thrown by the Redwings’ senior quaterback.
Estes wasted little time in making the Redwings pay. The senior fired a strike over the middle to wide-receiver/linebacker James Knight, who caught the ball in stride for a 32-yard scoring play.
In a matter of 54 seconds, the East St. Louis lead went from 8-0 to 20-0.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Knight said.