Depending upon who you believe, the 2019 East St. Louis Flyers are --at minimum-- the state's best team regardless of class size. One could say they are a preps version of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers and the 1985 Chicago Bears, wrapped up into one Illinois superpower. Even the Chicagoland media, some of the harshest critics to win over, have been all gaga over the Flyers. This is especially true after East St. Louis dispatched a highly acclaimed, highly ranked Batavia team 31-17 in the opening week. And it was honestly not as close as the score would indicate.
So the question remains: How good are the Flyers this season and can they be beaten?
I've been able to see East St. Louis play in person every season since the early 2000s. I've seen quite a few standout East teams and a multitude of standout hig- level college talent over those many years. The program has won more games in Illinois than any other in state history. But I believe in many ways that this could be their best team…ever. But they remain a long ways away from that lofty goal.
The overall talent level for the 2019 Flyers is undeniable.
Offensively, start with three star-ranked junior QB Tyler Macon. Macon, who is starting his second season under center, is a year older, faster, stronger and better this fall. Macon already had an impressive arm and deep ball. But his overall confidence level in the passing game and his ability to tuck it and run has increased considerably. Mix in a highly-ranked group of offensive skill position players including three star-ranked senior WR Lawaun Powell, four star-ranked (and the state’s top-ranked recruit via Rivals.com) senior WR/S Antonio Johnson, three star-ranked junior WR Dominic Lovett, senior three star-ranked junior WR Keontez Lewis and rising senior RB Demonta Witherspoon and you have easily one of the state's best skills group. The East St. Louis offensive line averages nearly 280 pounds. They’re led by three star-ranked Tennessee commit senior OG Javontez Spraggins (6-foot-3, 310 pounds).
On defense, they have a terrific mix of speed, size and athletic tools rarely seen at the prep level. The defensive line is led by senior three star-ranked DE Kevon Billingsley (Missouri) and senior DT Kendrick Scarbrough. The back seven is equally as skilled. Keep an eye on senior LB Darius Walker, senior DB Dylan Appleton along with secondary mates Antonio Johnson and Lawaun Powell.
So what will it take for a team to upset the Flyers?
Neuqua Valley, under head coach Bill Ellinghaus, was able to trade scores with the Flyers last Friday. They also made some key stops at times, but still couldn’t overcome the Flyers in a 50-48 in overtime loss. The Wildcats offense features a standout senior QB in Mark Gronowski (South Dakota State) along with a strong group of backs and receivers including WR Sean Larkin (SIU), senior Patrick Hoffman and senior WR Garrett Stare. Junior RB Armani Moreno has also given the Wildcats a punishing run threat to its already strong passing attack. But it wasn’t enough.
While Neuqua Valley was able to trade score for score, is there another way of slaying this tremendous 618 monster?
Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School has been able to eliminate the Flyers over the past two seasons in the 7A playoffs. OK, so we all know last year was last year. And we also know the Flyers are looking at playing in either the 6A or 5A state playoff field this November (East isn't being allowed to volunteer to play "up" in 7A but will play in its actual enrollment classification). Stay with me on this-- Mount Carmel, in both playoff wins, reverted a bit back to its old power running game/ball control attack. They slowed down the pace of the game and kept the Flyers’ speedy playmakers on the sidelines for extended periods of time. The Caravan also took full advantage of various East St. Louis penalties, lack of a strong kicking/punting game and turnovers en route to those wins. The Caravan also have a knack of making team pay for costly turnovers-- something that cost the Flyers at times in both playoff losses.
Admittedly, the chances of teams pulling off an upset of the Flyers, whether in the regular season or postseason looks more and more remote. Sure, East St. Louis still has its entire Southwestern conference schedule ahead of them. The annual showdown with rival Edwardsville (2-1) is always a big game in the Metro area. That comes on Oct. 4. The Week 9 nonconference showdown at Naperville Central sure looked a lot more promising a few weeks ago before the Redhawks got off to an 0-3 start. But Naperville Central still have a shot at making that Week 9 game mean something.
How about the postseason? Again, never say never, but the overall level of competition between playing in Class 7A versus playing in Class 6A or Class 5A can be considerable. Playing in Class 6A or 5A also means the Flyers will be in a more geographically friendly bracket and won't –potentially-- see very many Chicagoland area powers in those classes until very late in the state playoff or even at the state title game.
Also: let's not forget that this is still high school football. Kids could get hurt and/or suspended. And the only thing certain in high school football is nothing is certain. So can the East St. Louis Flyers be stopped? Of course. Will they be stopped? It's still too early to tell. But what I can tell you is this remains the best team I've seen so far this season in the Land of Lincoln. That I'm pretty certain about...at least for now.