East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett has seen his team overcome plenty of adversity this season, but the Flyers’ self-inflicted wounds were far too plentiful Saturday night.
Mount Carmel was good enough to make the Flyers pay for costly turnovers and penalties, ending East St. Louis’ dream of back-to-back state championships with a 21-18 win in a Class 7A quarterfinal at Gately Stadium.
“I don’t think it was what (Mount Carmel) did,” Sunkett said. “They made their stops, but we had some things going in the right direction and had some penalties at inopportune times. We were playing behind the chains a lot. There were unfortunate mistakes on our part.”
The loss is the first for East St. Louis (10-2) against an in-state team since 2015. Mount Carmel (9-3) advanced to take on Lake Zurich in the semifinals.
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Trailing 21-12, the Flyers got within three on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Eric Johnson to Lawaun Powell, but just 2:37 remained.
After Mount Carmel recovered the ensuing onside kick, the Flyers committed a costly offside penalty on fourth and 2 to give the Caravan a first down on the East St. Louis 40-yard line with just 2:15 to go.
The Flyers got new life when Oliver McDowell pounced on a fumble at the Flyers’ 35 with 46 seconds left. Johnson, though, threw an incomplete pass and was then intercepted by Aristotle Nakos with 33 seconds to go to seal the Caravan victory.
“Our defense did a great job,” Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti said. “We told the kids that we’ve had good luck against East St. Louis in the past when we’ve played them at Gately. Previous records and scores from this year didn’t matter. We just had to be better than them for 48 minutes.”
Johnson finished 8 of 18 for 91 yards and two touchdowns and ran seven times for 51 times, while DeMonta Witherspoon finished with 85 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries for the Flyers.
East St. Louis outgained Mount Carmel 278-166 but fell into an early hole.
A bad snap on a punt on the Flyers’ first possession set the Caravan up at the East St. Louis 13-yard line, and Mount Carmel took advantage with Ben Lenti scoring on a 1-yard run with 8:23 left in the first.
Mount Carmel quarterback Radomir Premovic ran for a 19-yard touchdown to make it 14-0 in the final minute of the first quarter.
“We did not get off to a good start,” Sunkett said. “That hurt us.”
Witherspoon’s 11-yard touchdown run got the Flyers on the board with 4:41 to go in the first half.
Johnson’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Powell made it 14-12 with 3:46 to go, but — as they did after all three of their scores — the Flyers missed the two-point conversion.
Despite the loss, Sunkett said there was plenty be proud of.
“Our kids fought all year and played with a lot of class,” he said. “We had a lot of injuries, but we didn’t make excuses. We battled with the best. You can’t win them all. We hit a brick wall (Saturday).”