Cary-Grove tops East St. Louis for another 6A title
NORMAL - Cary-Grove's defensive players watched anxiously from the sideline as their offensive counterparts took over early in the fourth quarter.
East St. Louis had just taken the lead, handing the Trojans their first deficit of the postseason. On top of that, the Flyers had forced punts on C-G's three previous drives.
"I was scared with a couple fourth downs, 'This is going to be it,'" Trojans linebacker Connor Anderson said. "But they've been practicing, they've been doing this for a long time and we rely on our offense and our offense relies on our defense. They really got it done for us and we got it done in the end.
"It couldn't have been at a more perfect time. It was the longest drive I've ever seen."
The drive - 19 plays, 71 yards and, for East St. Louis, a gut-wrenching 10 minutes, 45 seconds - was the response of a champion.
Fullback Logan Abrams scored from 2 yards out with 1:19 remaining and C-G came up with one final defensive stop to beat the Flyers 23-20 for the Class 6A state championship at Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium.
Trojans defensive back PJ Weaver iced the game with an interception at the East St. Louis 33 with 1:02 remaining.
C-G (12-2) won its third Class 6A state title in five years. The Trojans, who beat East St. Louis 37-36 for the 2021 championship, have won 17 of their last 18 playoff games.
"It means the world to us," running back Andrew Prio said. "I'm so proud of all our guys. We worked so hard in the offseason at getting better every week and it's just a great feeling.
"We definitely had to overcome some adversity they gave us. We knew this could be our last drive ever for some of our offensive players and we had to come up big and win the game."
East St. Louis (11-3) lost quarterback Robert Battle early in the third quarter after a 10-yard run to the C-G 18. Battle dropped down on the field and was attended to before limping off with a right leg injury. He was unable to return.
C-G, which scored on its first two drives of the game and led 15-6 at halftime, appeared to have even more of an advantage, but the Flyers displayed remarkable resilience.
Running back Laverious Woods ran for an 18-yard touchdown the play after Battle was replaced by Reese Shanklin. East St. Louis then put together another scoring drive after C-G came up short on a fourth-and-1 from its 29.
Woods scored on a 1-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
C-G then answered with perhaps its greatest drive in school history for its fourth state championship in school history. After the touchdown, kicker Jaden Apgar booted a touchback on the kickoff, as he did all day, preventing any return. Weaver then ended any threat with his interception.
"That was my coaches prepping me well for this week, talking to me how they break their routes out at times," Weaver said. "I was waiting for their guy to break his route outside and it headed my way."
Quarterback Peyton Seaburg knelt twice to kill the remaining time and the celebration started.
"It was just a great game by our kids," Trojans coach Brad Seaburg said. "Everybody, special teams, we got the two-point conversion to start the game, kicked the ball in the end zone every time, defense came up with great stops. Offense, that last drive sealed the deal.
"It was a great win for our kids, our program, our town, everybody who believed in us. It wasn't looking good for a while there, but our kids just showed great resilience."
East St. Louis finished with a 298-224 edge in total yards. Battle was 14 of 16 for 139 yards and rushed eight times for 52 yards.
"Pops (Battle) definitely has that extra dynamic that we were missing," Flyers coach Darren Sunkett said. "That last drive, you're talking about a dual-threat quarterback who can make things happen in the pocket.
"You know, it definitely would have been nice to have him. I hate to see him end his career the way it happened with the injury and couldn't finish the game. But he's had a great four-year career, and he gave it all up for his team today."
C-G is back on top after one of its most disappointing seasons, a 3-6 finish in 2022 that stopped a 17-year string of playoff appearances.
The Trojans were determined to atone this season and wound up doing far more than that.
"It's a great feeling," said Trojans defensive back Jack Rocen, who was in on nine tackles. "I wouldn't want to do it with any other group. It's awesome."
Anderson was the lone returning starter from the 2021 state championship team.
"It ended up the best way possible," Anderson said. "This is everything you dream of as a high school kid, a high school football player, a state championship is what you want and what you play for. To go out there with my brothers and battle a team that's that good and pull it out in the end is awesome."