Cary-Grove believes its 2021 experience can translate from the sideline to the field

Cary-Grove's senior and junior players were on the sideline at Northern Illinois University's Huskie Stadium two years ago for a great view as the Trojans shocked the state.

Cary-Grove finished its unbeaten season with a 37-36 triumph over East St. Louis, a team loaded with NCAA Division I talent and considered by many people as the best team, regardless of class, in the state.

"When I was a sophomore, it was crazy," senior defensive back Jack Rocen said. "All the people, and seeing the team we watched every week keep winning. You could see the hard work that year, it paid off."

Trojans running back Andrew Prio has similar memories.

"That was a great game, super close the whole time," Prio said. "Watching from the sideline gave me a different perspective as to how these guys play and how we need to play to win.

"It motivates us more, we're the underdog and did it once before and we have all the motivation to go out there and do our best."

Cary-Grove (11-2) will try to shock the state again at 1 p.m. Saturday (CW 26) when it meets East St. Louis (11-2) again for the state championship. It is the Flyers' fourth consecutive trip to the Class 6A title game; the Trojans are back for the third time in five years.

East St. Louis quarterback Robert Battle started in the 2021 game and is back to lead the Flyers' offense. The Flyers lost their opener to Mount Carmel 36-33 at Hancock Stadium. Their other loss came in Week 3 to Atascocita, Texas, 43-13.

East St. Louis beat Washington 34-18 in their semifinal last week. The 2021 title game could help Cary-Grove overcome the mental aspect of playing such a talented opponent.

"It was only two years ago and a lot of those kids were there and remember what it was like," Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said. "I don't think we have to sell our kids into believing. We have a group that's very confident and is certainly going to look at East St. Louis as the competitive team that they are, they're a great team, but our kids are great too.

"We'll look at that film from the standpoint of how they attacked us and how we attacked them, and some special teams stuff as well. In terms of getting our kids to believe, I think they're there."

East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett is seeing a triple-option team for the fourth straight title game. In 2019 and 2022 the Flyers beat Prairie Ridge in the championship.

"With a team like Cary-Grove, it's normally the same key, you have to take the fullback out of the game," Sunkett said. "That's what we're figuring out how to stop the dive and work our way out from there.

"We'll definitely pull information from that and compare with the film we have presently and figure out what we can do differently offensively and defensively."

In 2021 Cary-Grove fullback Nick Hissong ran 32 times for 224 yards and two touchdowns, while quarterback Jameson Sheehan carried 20 times for 99 yards and three scores. Hissong, a 215-pounder, was whom Sunkett talked about most in the postgame interviews.

Hissong suffered a torn ACL late in the game, but the Trojans had a lead they protected.

Cary-Grove has another big fullback in 6-3, 219-pound Logan Abrams, who leads the team with 1,493 yards and 24 touchdowns. Prio has run for 1,228 yards on 80 carries, an average of 15.4 yards per carry.

Sunkett and his coaches designated a day in summer practices to looking at how to defend the option, thinking the Flyers might see one of the Fox Valley Conference powerhouses again.

"You pick up more and more things as you play against it," Sunkett said. "As we went through the season we thought we might see Prairie Ridge or Cary-Grove down the line."

The Trojans graduated most of their starters from the 2021 team and several of their experienced players returning last season suffered injuries. They finished 3-6 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003, but now they are back.

"It's awesome to be back. We all knew what we needed to do in the off-season," said Trojans linebacker Connor Anderson, the lone returning starter from 2021. "The coaches did a great job of identifying our flaws and how to fix it.

"We got better, we got faster. To get back here after last year is awesome, it's a tremendous feeling. We all learned a lot from last year and how it can go the opposite way."

Even before the season, Rocen felt a difference.

"In the summer we had confidence we were going to make our way back and be back to where we usually were," he said. "Last year was a big motivator. It got us going. You think back and you don't want to feel that way again. You want to keep striding forward."

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