For the first time in eight years the City of Champions is celebrating.
East St. Louis senior quarterback Reyondous Estes threw three touchdown passes, two of which went to All-American Jeff Thomas, while senior linebacker Lamontre Harvey spearheaded another dominant performance by the defense as the Flyers captured the eighth state football championship in school history.
East St. Louis defeated Plainfield North, 26-13, in the Class 7A title game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign Saturday.
The Flyers, who finish with a perfect 14-0 record, jumped out to a 12-0 halftime lead, then got big plays from Estes, Thomas and Eric Owens, whose 82-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter set an IHSA championship game record.
The title is the Flyers’ first since the 2008 season and second under coach Darren Sunkett. East St. Louis won its first six state championships under coach Bob Shannon.
The 2016 East St. Louis squad was built on dominating defense and an opportunistic, big-play offense. The Flyers rebounded from a teachers’ strike that cut a promising season short in 2015.
“These kids did a great job. They are the ones who did the work in the weight room in the summer and bought into what the coaching staff was saying,” Sunkett said following the game.
“To have the opportunity to even get here (the title game) is something that a lot of people never get to experience. To be able to win it with this bunch of kids means a lot. I’m just so proud of this football team.”
Playing before a large contingent of East St. Louis fans which made the three-hour trip, the Flyers scored twice in a span of 1 minute 43 seconds late in the first quarter to take a 12-0 lead then turned the game over to their defense which held the Tigers scoreless until early in the fourth period.
By the time Plainfield North (11-3) got on the scoreboard with 11:48 left in the game, the Flyers had a 26-0 lead.
“This is what he worked so hard for all year,” Harvey said. “We felt like we had some unfinished business after what happened last year with the (teachers’) strike and we were determined to finish it off right tonight. I’m just so proud of these guys.
“The key was our desire and our ability to work together as a unit. We all got along so well because we all had the same goal — to be state champions — and tonight we finished the job.”
Estes got the Flyers’ offense moving midway in the first quarter, directing an 11-play 56 yard drive capped on a seven-yard pass to James Knight.
The Flyers’ defense, which forced four punts and a turnover on Plainfield North’s first five possessions, quickly got the ball back.
On 1st-and-10 from the Plainfield North 43-yard line, Estes found a wide open Thomas over the middle to make the score 12-0.
“I was surprised I was that open,” Thomas said. “I gave a fake like I was going to was going to run an out pattern then broke to the middle.”
A 72-yard touchdown strike from Estes to Thomas in the second quarter was called back by an illegal block.
But the story of the game once again was the Flyers’ defense, which allowed the Tigers just 37 yards of total offense in the first half.
Plainfield North coach Tim Kane, the former head coach at Collinsville, said the keys to the game were simple.
“We had some chances,” said Kane, who is 0-6 against the Flyers in his career. “We didn’t take advantage of our opportunities and we gave up the big play.”
There were more big plays to come in the third quarter.
Estes, who finished the game 5-of-7 for 130 yards, connected with Thomas on a 61-yard touchdown with 6:30 left in the third quarter to put the Flyers ahead 20-0.
Trailing by three scores, the Tigers responded with their best drive of the night. With quarterback Brady Miller leading the way, North marched inside the Flyers’ 20-yard line.
But attempting a pass in the right flat to running back Tyler Hoosman, Miller had his pass intercepted by Owens who ran up the sideline for a touchdown.
The Tigers scored twice in the fourth quarter.
Junior Jarrell Anderson led the Flyers with 92 yards on 23 carries. Thomas had three catches for 105 yards and the two score.
Miller completed 12-of-24 for 130 yards and a touchdown to lead Plainfield North. His 19 rushing yards also was tops for the Tigers. Connor Peplow had seven receptions for 95 yards and a score.