LEMONT – As the carries began to pile up, East St. Louis sophomore running back TaRyan Martin prepared to shoulder as much of the load as his 5-foot-8, 175-pound frame could manage.
As it turned out, Martin could shoulder an awful lot.
He finished with 375 rushing yards and four touchdowns on a day the Flyers had to lean on their ground game more than usual for a hard-fought, 32-29 victory over Lemont in the Class 6A semifinals on Saturday.
“I definitely became a man today. And props to Lemont. I can’t even feel my body right now, I just want to be real with you,” Martin said. “I just want to soak in the victory with my team and get ready for next week.”
East St. Louis (11-2) will face Prairie Ridge (12-1) in next Saturday’s Class 6A state championship at the University of Illinois. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
Lemont finishes its season with a 12-1 record.
The windy conditions altered the game plan of both teams. Neither managed to complete a pass to their own team in the first half. East St. Louis did throw an interception.
Ultimately, what makes East St. Louis so dangerous its ability to attack you from a variety of ways on offense, but the passing avenue clearly wasn’t going to be a path the Flyers were going to be able to take Saturday. In the end, East St. Louis would not complete a single pass in the game.
And in the early stages of the game it didn’t look like any avenue was poised to be fruitful. Lemont forced a three-and-out on the opening possession of the game, and Lemont’s Nate Wrublik burst through the defense and scored on a 41-yard touchdown run. It was the first points East St. Louis allowed in the postseason.
East St. Louis promptly fumbled on its next possession, and Lemont used the short field to its advantage. Wrublik crashed in again from the 2-yard line to give Lemont a somewhat stunning 14-0 lead some five minutes into the contest. It was the largest deficit East St. Louis had seen at any time this season.
Despite looking out of sync, the Flyers didn’t let things get worse with a clearly motivated Lemont squad scraping and clawing for whatever advantages it could find. In the end, Lemont wasn’t able to add to the lead, and East St. Louis finally started to gets its bearings late in the second quarter using a simple equation of allowing Martin to pick and choose his spots running behind the Flyers massive and talented offensive line.
The Flyers finally ground out a substantial drive just before the half, with Martin plowing in from 7 yards to make it 14-6 a minute before the halftime break.
“We told the kids that they [Lemont] were going to come out with a lot of fight and a lot of intensity,” East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett said. “And we had to match that. Our first couple of drives when we were going against the wind, we had some problems. But we stayed the course and never put our heads down.”
East St. Louis’ course correction carried through into the second half. After forcing a three-and-out, Martin broke off a run of 15 and then scored from 35 yards with 8:48 left in the third quarter. Once again the Flyers missed the conversion and still trailed 14-12.
Neither team could gain a true foothold from there, though, and the score held at 14-12 heading into what turned out to be a wild fourth quarter.
Martin gave East St. Louis its first lead of the game, scoring from 10 yards out with 11:38 to play. But Lemont electrified the home crowd once more by getting a 38-yard touchdown pass from Payton Salomon to Luke Wallace to put Lemont back in front once again, 21-18.
It took less than a minute for East St. Louis to respond. Martin took to the outside, wisely using University of Alabama recruit offensive tackle Miles McVay to lead him to open space. Once he found it, he turned on the jets and scored a 76-yard touchdown.
After the Flyers got the ball back quickly, it seemed to perform a finishing move by getting a 33-yard touchdown run from Marquise Palmer, which stretched East St. Louis’ lead to 32-21. And after getting a sack that seemed to push Lemont even farther away from mounting a rally, a personal foul penalty on East St. Louis gave Lemont a little bit more oxygen.
Soloman, whose prolific passing abilities were also tempered severely by the high winds, would cut through the wind on a pretty pass to Wallace for a 55-yard score. Then he’d connect with Dylan Swanstrom for the two-point conversion to pull Lemont to within 32-29.
Lemont got the defensive stop it needed to get the ball back, but was unable to mount a drive substantial enough to get them in position for an equalizing or go-ahead score.
“I thought we had them, I thought we did. Obviously they are good,” Lemont coach Bret Kooi said. “It was just one of those where I felt like we were good enough to be there too, we just fell a little short. We had the momentum on our side, but their big guys up front were just a little too big for us.
“You gotta play real clean to beat them, and we played clean. I think the conditions today helped them, we were worried about what they were going to do, because they were so big up front. They are like a major college offensive line.
“I feel absolutely devastated for our kids and our staff. We felt like we had a shot at getting there, but we fell a little short.”
The game marked the end of the coaching career of Kooi, who announced he would be retiring at the conclusion of this season at the beginning of the campaign. Kooi also had stops at Joliet West and Lockport as a head coach before ending up at Lemont. He compiled a 198-103 record over 29 seasons at the three schools, winning Class 8A titles at Lockport in 2002 and 2003.