East St. Louis had no reason to trust head coach Mark Chambers when he took over the program in the middle of last season.
The fifth head coach in a three-year span, the Flyers were burned too many times by coaches who didn't stick around long enough to make an impact. But Chambers quickly proved he was different. Guiding East St. Louis to a sectional finals appearance last season, the program gained positive momentum heading into the summer. And in the offseason, Chambers set out to fully rebuild a once-proud program that had fallen on tough times.
Overcoming adversity became the norm for the Flyers, and it helped them rally to take down Bogan in overtime, 68-63, on Saturday afternoon as East St. Louis claimed the IHSA Class 3A state championship.
Trailing 51-44 with 3:07 left in the fourth quarter, the Flyers furiously rallied to force overtime. From there, star senior Terrence Hargrove Jr. and his teammates rose to the occasion to pull off one of the more surprising state-title runs of the past decade.
Hargrove finished with a team-high 32 points and 10 rebounds -- engaging in a memorable head-to-head, above-the-rim battle with Bogan star big man Rashuan Agee (24 points, 14 rebounds). Junior guard Jashawn Anderson (13 points) and senior forward Richard Robinson (11 points) also came up with huge plays for the Flyers -- including Robinson's tip dunk off an Anderson missed free throw to tie the game at the end of regulation with four seconds left. And East St. Louis benefitted from numerous Bogan mistakes down the stretch, including two Bengal missed free throws and the missed boxout at the end of regulation.
The first boys basketball state title in school history, nobody expected East St. Louis to reach Peoria, let alone win a title, after all the program had been through over the past few seasons. The rebuild accelerated quickly thanks to the bond formed by the Flyers and their new, permanent head coach.
"We reached a low point," Hargrove Jr. told NBC Sports Chicago. "We thought like, 'Man, we can't get a [steady] Coach...' But we stayed positive and thought that we couldn't use that as an excuse. Then he came in and changed our program clean around."
An assistant coach at Cahokia for 12 seasons before he took the helm at East St. Louis, Chambers needed to convince Hargrove to buy in first as the team's best player. Once Hargrove bought in, things started to fall into place. With Hargrove, a talented Saint Louis commit and Mr. Basketball nominee, telling his teammates that the new coach knew what he was doing, it grew easier for trust to naturally form.
"This summer he started talking to us and we started believing in us as a team and it was all positivity," Hargrove said. "We believed in every word he said and he taught us how to do so many things. A father-figure and a coach at the same time. We just thought he was another coach coming through our school. But as we sat there and listened to him, sometimes we just came to practice and bonded and talked."
Seeing the talent East St. Louis had on the roster, Chambers believed the team could be a state title threat as early as this season. Chambers saw the Flyers develop quickly during the summer. Building a challenging schedule that included state champions from Missouri (Vashon) and Illinois (Belleville West and Orr), the Flyers set out to put the program in a positive direction during the 2018-19 season.
"We thought after last summer we had a really good team. But it was about coming together and getting the right pieces to fit," Chambers said. "Those guys got in the gym and they worked, got in the weight room and worked. And that's why we're here today.
"When i took over a year ago, these kids were not believing. They had five coaches in three years and they just thought of me as the next coach. So to see us at this level, 12, 13 months later, man, I didn't see it coming this way, this soon. But the way my guys bought in, they made it happen quicker."
Replacing Hargrove is going to be a difficult task for the Flyers as they try to stay among the state's elite next season. Chambers is pleased by a deep group of juniors who should return next season. East St. Louis won't surprise anyone in Illinois anymore after its breakthrough season. At the very least, a positive foundation appears to be set. Stability is finally in place for the Flyers going forward.
"I wanted to change not only our culture but our identity," Chambers said. "A lot of times people talk about East St. Louis basketball and East St. Louis sports in a certain way. But I wanted to make sure our identity was tight and that we know who we are and we know where we want to go. So we set goals and we tried to attain those goals every day. And we understood that it's a process and how the culture was changed. It's been a daily process. And even today, there's still stuff we have to deal with. But I know we're on the right path."