As the final seconds of the Class 7A state title game ticked off the Memorial Stadium clock on Saturday, the East St. Louis Flyers let loose.
The hours in the weight room, watching film, late summer heat during two-a-days and all the high expectations of being the top-ranked team in the state for 14 straight weeks, were all made instantly worthwhile.
With its 26-13 win over Plainfield North, the Flyers had finished what was started two years ago, capturing their eighth state championship and first time in eight years.
“What does this mean to me? It’s everything. Everything we’ve worked for,” said defensive back Eric Owens, whose record 85-yard interception return in the third quarter gave his team a 26-0 lead. “It’s the greatest night of my life.”
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It was also a great night for the rest of the Flyers — who in addition to being perhaps the most talented team in the state — may have been the most determined.
Quarterback Reyondous Estes, whose three touchdown passes on Saturday keyed the Flyers’ offense, spoke often during the season how disappointing the 2015 season turned out to be for him and his teammates.
Expected to contend for the state crown a year ago, East St. Louis’ season came to an abrupt end when the District 189 teachers went on strike after week five of the regular season, costing the Flyers any hope of a playoff berth.
On Saturday with a few of the senior players from the 2015 team among the huge Flyers crowd that made the trip north, Estes and his teammates not only won for themselves, the school and the community, but they also won for the Flyers of 2015.
“We told the seniors from last year that we had their backs,” Estes said. “We wanted to win it for them, for our whole city and everyone in the 618 area code.”
Estes and Thomas, longtime teammates and friends were the offensive keys on Saturday. Bouncing back from a tough day in the Flyers’ semifinal win over Benet Academy, Estes set up the Flyers’ first touchdown — a seven-yard toss to James Knight — with a pair of clutch runs, then fired scoring strikes of 61 and 43 yards to Thomas, who as he has been throughout his career was at his best in the biggest moments.
“Coach (Sunkett) put it on my shoulders. I didn’t feel like I played that well the week before. I felt like I owed the team one,” Estes said.
The Flyers coach for the past 15 years, Darren Sunkett said his team couldn’t have gotten off to a better start Saturday.
The defense was in lockdown mode for the first two quarters, holding the Tigers’
offense to under 40 yards of offense and forcing five punts in six possessions. The offense took advantage as Estes hooked up with Knight and Thomas twice in less than two minutes late in the first quarter to take a 12-0 lead.
Plainfield North (11-3) never got any closer.
“We wanted to strike quickly. Hit them with big plays and see how they responded,” Sunkett said.
Although Plainfield North scored twice in the fourth quarter, the Tigers were never really a threat to the Flyers after the first quarter. But there were a few anxious moments on the field for the Flyers during the 2016 season.
A 32-28 win over CBC in week two and a 20-10 win over an Edwardsville team which reached the Class 8A quarterfinals were the threats in the regular season. But both of those games aren’t close to the drama of the last play of the game in a 32-28 quarterfinal win over Glenbard North.
It was then when Estes found Thomas for a 23-yard strike with one second left on the clock to give the Flyers the win.
“You have to be good and you have to have some luck along the way during the season to get here,” a smiling Sunkett said. “The magic moment, that touchdown pass from Rey to Jeff ... it’s got to be one the greatest moments in the history of the East St. Louis football program.”
A look at 2008
Led by the brilliance of current East St. Louis assistant coach Terry Hawthorne, Kraig Appleton and running back Courtney Molton, the Flyers finished 13-1 in 2008 and won the Class 7A crown. It was a team built on its play makers on offense.
The 2016 Flyers were built on the defense.
“I think both teams were built a little different,” Sunkett said. “Don’t get me wrong, we have stars on offense, but there were more stars offensively in 2008. You’re talking about the Hawthornes, the Appletons, the Moltons. This year’s team had offensive stars that were unproven. We had Reyondous and we had Jeff, but other than that, the guys were young. We had a freshman wide receiver starting for us. We had a left guard who was also a freshman starter. There was a maturation process for those guys.
“There were some young guys on defense, but it was senior dominated. If I had to compare, it would be the ’08 offense vs. the 2016 defense. But they were both great football teams and both squads accomplished a whole lot.”
Regarded as one of the wide receivers in the nation, Thomas wasn’t good enough to be named as an all-state player. Neither were Lamontre Harvey, James Knight or Ken Dixon on defense.
But the Flyers have a state title.
“It happened to Edwardsville too,” Sunkett said of the all-state snub of Southwestern Conference players. “They (the panel) left their All-American (Iowa-bound defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa) off the list two.
“Maybe the sports writers have something against us guys down south.”
Estes may be having second thought about playing at Missouri.
The senior quarterback gave the Tigers his verbal commitment over the summer, following a long line of former Flyers to Columbia. But following the championship win over Plainfield North, Estes said other offers could sway his decision.
“I’m thinking about Iowa, Illinois, Tulane, (or) New Mexico. I’m still thinking,” he said.
Included on the Missouri roster in 2016 are former East St. Louis safety Greg Taylor, running back Nate Strong, offensive lineman Tre’Vour Simms, and defensive lineman Terry Beckner Jr.
Thomas also had listed Missouri on his final list of choices, but said Saturday that list has been narrowed to Alabama and Illinois.