Scouting the Class 6A football championship game between Cary-Grove and East St. Louis
East St. Louis (11-2) vs. Cary-Grove (13-0)
Class 6A State Football Championship Game
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Where: Huskie Stadium, on the campus of Northern Illinois University, DeKalb
Last week: Cary-Grove 40, Lake Forest 7; East St. Louis 54, Crete-Monee 13
Seeds: Cary-Grove No. 1 top half; East St. Louis No. 4 bottom half of Class 6A bracket
Wins against playoff teams: Cary-Grove 9; East St. Louis 10
How can I watch it? Book out to DeKalb and buy a $15 ticket, watch it in the Chicago area on WCIU (The U) Channel 26 or WMEU (The U) Channel 48 or stream it on the NFHS Network (fee).
Outlook: This is for all the marbles in Class 6A. Cary-Grove is in a state championship game for the sixth time (state titles in 2009 and 2018) and fourth time under 11th year coach Brad Seaburg, who is 109-20 at the helm.
"The only thing I have noticed that is different is our intensity and focus have increased these final weeks," said senior guard Max Katsenos, the only returning starter on an offensive line that has helped the Trojans averaged 422 yards of total offense per game this season.
"It's do or die. We have really picked it up and have played well as a team. Part of it comes with how long we have played together. I have known a lot of these guys since second grade. The synergy shows. Everybody has each other's back and that has been a big part of it."
The Cary-Grove offensive line of Katsenos, center Nolan Sharkey, guard Aaron Caspary, tackle Niko Neckopoulos and tackle Zach Petko has been a key storyline this season. The Trojans piled up 513 yards of total offense (9 yards per play) in the semifinal win over Lake Forest where three runners -- Nick Hissong, the returning Wade Abrams (out since October injured) and quarterback Jameson Sheehan -- either ran for 100 yards or were a stone's throw away with Drew Magel a 20-spot shy as well.
Cary-Grove's stating offense scored on every drive against Lake Forest, so that unit has scored a touchdown on every drive in the playoffs but one.
Don't sleep on the Trojans' passing game where Sheehan passed for more than 100 yards last week. His favorite target this season has been tight end Riley, who hauled in 6 for 94 yards in the Lake Forest game and has 32 catches for 680 yards and 8 touchdowns. Senior tight end Michael Gustafsson rounds out the Cary-Grove starting offense.
Cary-Grove stats master Matt Cozzi pointed out the Trojans starting defense has allowed one touchdown the entire playoffs (opening drive by Grayslake Central in the second round). Colin Desmet (10 tackles), Ryan Gustaffson (9 tackles) and Petko (8 tackles) led the way last week. Cary-Grove sits at a plus-11 in the takeaway category.
"The guys all want to be great and we have a good work ethic," Cary-Grove senior defensive end Nick Wojcik said. "We all have the same goal in mind. We haven't been doing anything different. We keep doing what we are doing, know our roles and stay disciplined. It's different guys on the other side and better athletes each week. This is another game we are excited for and it doesn't make it any less of a big deal for us. We are so pumped up. It's our first time in DeKalb as a program. There's been a little extra energy this week."
On the opposing sideline will be one of the most decorated programs in the state. With no state playoffs last school year, East St. Louis is the defending Class 6A state champion and is looking for its 10th state title and fourth under 23rd-year coach Darren Sunkett (200-61 at ESL; 234-72 in 27 total years). The Flyers have played four out-of-state teams this season with their only losses coming to national powerhouses St. John Bosco out of Bellflower, California (game played in California) and to IMG Academy in a game in Bradenton, Florida in Week 9.
The Flyers have racked up the mileage equally on the ground (2,942 rushing yards) and through the air. Quarterback Robert Battle has thrown for 2,662 yards and 28 touchdowns against 7 picks. His favorite target is University of Missouri commit Luther Burden who has caught 71 passes for 1,174 yards and 20 touchdowns (16.5 yards per catch). But of even greater note is the fact Burden (6-2, 205), the No. 6-rated recruit in the Class of 2022 by Rivals.com and 247Sports.com, has scored 32 total touchdowns with eight of them coming on punt returns. Yes, eight. In fact, Burden, who played his first three years at Cardinal Ritter in St. Louis, has 21 punt returns for 852 yards (40.6 yards per return).
"You would be blind not to see the key is keeping the ball out of No. 3's (Burden's) hands," Seaburg said. "If we don't have to punt it ever, that would be awesome. We have to minimize his touches. He's off the charts as a player. My first thought is we have to be able to sustain drives. It's critical. We have to be able to control the clock. East St. Louis has speed all over the place. As much press as their offense gets, and rightfully so, their defense should get equally as much. It's hard to find a weakness. We will have a challenge because of their speed and physicality."
Flyers freshman TaRyan Martin has run for 834 yards and 15 touchdowns out of a balanced backfield that features four runners with 375 or more rushing yards.
And then there is the East St. Louis offensive line with four of its five starters weighing 300 or more pounds and four of the five checking in at 6-foot-4 or taller.
"They have an NFL-sized offensive line," Seaburg said.
Sunkett said defending Cary-Grove's triple-option offense will present an equal challenge.
"When you play an option team the first thing you have to do is stop the fullback (Hissong, 1,489 yards rushing, 27 touchdowns, 9.3 yards per carry)," he said earlier this week. "We have 2 1/2 days to prepare for an offense we haven't seen since 2019 (state title game against fellow Fox Valley Conference entrant Prairie Ridge in the Class 6A title game). We are definitely going to have our hands full. We will have to play a very disciplined game and focus on our assignments and do our assignments to the best of our ability. If we want to have success, we have to play as a unit."