By Randy Whalen
For the Bugle
Before Benet Academy took the field for its Class 7A state semifinal football game, the Redwings felt good.
“We felt, ‘why not us,’” Benet senior safety Alec McEachern said. “We felt confident and our defense went out and player stellar.”
They did, but the only thing was their opponents defense played better. That was East St. Louis, Sr. which shutout the Redwings 20-0 in a Class 7A state semifinal game on a cold and blustery Saturday afternoon, Nov. 19 at Benedictine University in Lisle.
It was the first time Benet was shutout since a 33-0 loss to last season’s Class 5A state champion – Nazareth Academy, on Oct. 2, 2015. The Redwings (10-3) were making their first semifinal appearance since 2012 and were hoping to become the second squad in school history to advance to a title game. They finished second in Class 4A in 1984.
Instead it is East St. Louis making its 11th state title appearance and first since winning it in 2008. The Flyers (13-0) will go for their eighth championship this Saturday Nov. 26 at 4 p.m. at Memorial Stadium in Champaign against Plainfield North. The Tigers rallied to shock host Fenwick 18-17 in overtime in the other semifinal.
“They are a powerful team and I’m proud of the way our guys battled,” Benet coach Pat New said of the Flyers. “But we weren’t able to execute and you have to be able to run the ball to beat them.”
Running the ball was something that was certainly not in the cards for the Redwings. Including quarterback sacks, they had 13 rushing attempts the netted minus 34 yards. That meant an almost unreal time of possession disparity where East St. Louis held the ball for 35 minutes and 7 seconds, compared to 12:53 for Benet.
“Yes, they were the best defense we saw this season,” Benet senior quarterback Jack Sznajder said. “They were fast to the ball and made it tough.”
Still things started well for the Redwings as Sznajder completed 3-of-4 passes to on the games opening drive for 33 yards. Included in that was a 12-yard strike to senior wide receiver Michael Challenger that gave Benet a first down at the East. St. Louis 26. But Challenger was injured with what might have been a broken right hand later in the quarter, and the Redwings turned the ball over on downs at the 28.
“That hurt a lot, that was tough,” Sznajder said of losing Challenger. “Just hopefully he’ll get better.”
McEachern set the tone on defense by popping senior Jeff Thomas for a six yard loss on the Flyers first offensive play. He was in on numerous tackles and had a first quarter interception.
“Our coaches knew a lot of their tendencies, so I was able to come up and make a good hit,” McEachern said of his early lick, which got the cold crowd all fired up. “Then [the interception] was a credit to the D-line and outside linebackers for staying home on the coverage.”
The defense forced a Flyer punt and Benet set up shop at the East St. Louis 31. A pass interference call gave the Redwings a first down at the 16, but they went backward from there. Junior kicker Victor Karam tried a 41-yrd field goal, which had the distance, but was wide right with 7:19 left in the fist quarter.
Benet never got another first down the rest of the half. Near the end of the opening quarter a short punt gave the Flyers good field position at the Redwing 34. Four plays later junior Jarrell Anderson (25 carries – 146 yards, 2 TD’s) burst around the left side for a 23-yard TD jaunt. He added the 2-point conversion run for an 8-0 lead with 10 seconds to play in the first quarter.
That remained the score at halftime as the Redwing defense turned back East St. Louis without points twice from inside the 10 in the first half and three times total in the game. The Flyers, however, did score from inside the 10 once. That was on their second drive of the third quarter, an 80-yard, 10 play march that was capped off on an 8-yard scoring run by Anderson with 2:58 to play in the third. Following an interception, Reyondous Estes hit fellow senior James Knight over the middle on a wide open 32-yard TD pass with 2:04 left in the third quarter to make it 20-0.
Estes was 4-of-10 with an interception for 88 yards and the TD. East St. Louis had 336 total yards compared to 98 for the Redwings.
Sznajder finished 9-of-32 for 132 yards and had two interceptions. He had fourth quarter passes of 45-yards to senior C.J. Birck and 30-yards to junior Nicholas Keyes to help Benet reach the Flyers 12 yard line, but the drive stalled there.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Sznajder said of what the season meant to him. “We had a great group of guys. I’ll just remember all the things we did, all the times we had as a team.”
The 20 points tied a season low for the Flyers.
“I’m proud of the way the defense played, we were tough all year,” New said. “It was the first time in four years we made the semifinals and it was exciting.”