East St. Louis isn’t afraid of a challenge, has trips to California, Mississippi scheduled

The Flyers will board a plane twice for nonconference games next fall

Few teams in Illinois will have as many Division I college prospects as East St. Louis next season, and the Flyers have built a schedule to showcase that talent.

Coach Darren Sunkett’s team will do something it has never done before – board a plane. And it will do so twice.

The 2019 IHSA Class 6A state champions, who went 5-1 this spring, aren’t afraid of a challenge in nonconference play. They will travel to California and Mississippi to face two of the top programs in the nation.

“Year in and year out, we just try to put together the best possible schedule we can,” Sunkett said. “It doesn’t matter who the opponents are, we just want to give our kids an opportunity to compete.”

The Flyers open the season against Christian Brothers and De Smet in Weeks 1 and 2, both are two of the top private school programs in Missouri.

In Week 3, they will travel to the Los Angeles area to face St. John Bosco, which finished the spring season 5-1 and ranked No. 2 in southern California by the Los Angeles Times.

Southwestern Conference matchups will follow with Belleville West, Alton, Edwardsville, O’Fallon and Belleville East in Weeks 4-8. Finally, in Week 9 is a playoff tuneup against arguably the top program in the country, IMG Academy (Florida).

IMG is based in Bradenton, Florida, and assembles some of the top talent from across the country. Notably, former Nazareth quarterback J.J. McCarthy transferred to IMG when the IHSA moved football to the spring. Cornerback Greg Newsome, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns last month, transferred from Glenbard North to IMG for his senior season several years ago.

East St. Louis will meet IMG in Week 9 at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. IMG finished last season 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today.

“We feel like it’s the best tuneup we can get, I can tell you that,” Sunkett said. “The good thing about that is it gives our kids a good eight weeks to mature and develop and you hope, as a program, that you get better week to week. So we feel like we should be rolling pretty good come Week 9.”

IMG currently has nine of the top 25 recruits in the state of Florida in the class of 2022, according to 247Sports. East St. Louis has five of the top 38 recruits in Illinois in the class of 2022, according to 247Sports, plus the state’s top-ranked recruit in 2023 in lineman Miles McVay.

Sunkett said he is always looking for games against the top teams across the country. He said it’s not uncommon for top programs in other states to be in contact with each other when it’s time to start scheduling.

East St. Louis is no stranger to long trips. The team traveled to Michigan and Ohio in 2018, Ohio in 2014 and Kansas City in 2012.

When East St. Louis went to Georgia in 2011, it took a bus. This fall, the Flyers will be flying, literally, to California and Mississippi. That will be a first for the program.

“It provides an experience that some of [the players] may never have that opportunity to have again,” Sunkett said. “But it’s still a business trip for us. It’s not a vacation. We’re going down there to try to win a ballgame.”

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for Shaw Media. He also contributes to high school football coverage at Friday Night Drive. Sean has covered various sports at the amateur, college and professional levels since 2012. He joined Shaw Media in 2016.