DeKALB – Cary-Grove dreaded letting East St. Louis have the ball with 3:16 remaining, even with the Flyers 84 yards away from the goal line.
Trojans coach Brad Seaburg admitted he was terrified as his team protected its one-point lead.
“We all knew we had to make the stop of our lives,” defensive back Toby Splitt said. “Try to keep it out of No. 3′s [Luther Burden] hands as much as we could.”
The electrifying Burden, one of the nation’s top players, caught back-to-back passes of 17 and 19 yards as the Flyers pushed into C-G territory.
Then, it happened.
Linebacker Zach Petko got a hold on East St. Louis quarterback Robert Battle and, as Battle was being dragged down he tried to make a play, flipping the ball toward Burden along the right sideline.
The Trojans’ Noah Riley was right there to pick it off and C-G’s sideline and fans erupted in celebration. One kneel-down from quarterback Jameson Sheehan and C-G had pulled off a 37-36 upset for the Class 6A state championship Saturday at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium.
Those who witnessed the game will call it one of the best they have ever seen, with two vastly different offenses that were practically unstoppable.
The state championship is C-G’s third in school history, the second for Seaburg as head coach. He was an assistant on coach Bruce Kay’s staff for the 2009 state title.
“I can tell you this is the most exhilarating,” said Seaburg, when asked to compare the three. “I’m getting older and could feel my heart beating a lot in this one here. Every championship is special and this one is definitely the most suspenseful.”
C-G finished 14-0 for the third time in school history and won its second title in three years.
“We just had so much confidence coming into this game that we were going to be the ones to come out on top,” Sheehan said. “I’m at a loss for words right now. It was such a great atmosphere, just playing the game of my life. It was awesome.”
East St. Louis was trying to repeat at 6A state champ and win its 10th state title in school history.
“Both teams played an outstanding game,” said Flyers coach Darren Sunkett, whose team was 11-3. “We’ve done some great things. When you look at it, they didn’t stop us and we didn’t stop them. They just stopped us on this final drive. There’s nothing to hang their heads about, they lost to a very quality football team.”
C-G started the season ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press Class 6A poll, but fell to No. 2 after East St. Louis, a powerhouse loaded with NCAA Division I players, was declared a 6A team.
Many fans around the state thought that would stop C-G from winning the state championship.
“We told our kids on Monday, we thought we were the best team in the state of Illinois,” Seaburg said. “We did everything to prove that’s a possibility.”
Before Saturday, C-G’s biggest challenge came in a 36-22 victory over Jacobs in Week 7. The Golden Eagles trailed by one score early in the fourth quarter before C-G came right back to score.
The Trojans had not punted in the postseason until the third quarter Saturday. Their first-team defense had not allowed a touchdown until East St. Louis’ first drive.
East St. Louis traveled the country to play national power St. John Bosco (California) and IMG Academy, which handed the Flyers their two losses. They had tough games against two of Missouri’s best teams in the first two weeks.
Seaburg said C-G’s coaches knew this senior class was special when it came as freshmen. He talked this week about how the Trojans had aimed to be in this position since Day 1.
Once there, the Trojans passed the biggest test of their careers.
“The offense knew it could come down to a shootout like it did and we had to capitalize every time we had the ball and execute at 100%,” said Hissong, who rushed 32 times for 224 yards.
Hissong likely suffered a torn right ACL on the Trojans’ final drive, which took up 8:22 and was stopped at the Flyers’ 16 on a fumble. Fortunately for the Trojans, he had done enough damage.
“We talked with the kids about this Thursday,” Seaburg said. “I’m thankful for our kids. They’re phenomenal in their work ethic and what they do. They believe in us and we believe in them.
“We knew that we had to play about as good as we could play in order to win, and even then, it would still be tough.”