Trojans hold off Flyers in all-time classic to clinch state title

This year’s Trojans squad always had confidence in themselves coming into the 13 games prior to their sixth state game in 17 years. 

Where Cary-Grove’s confidence would really be tested, however, was when they headed into a game against a top-100 team in the nation in the East St. Louis Flyers, one that gave their opposition constant fits week in and week out. 

The Trojans passed the final exam without a doubt to all who witnessed the final moments. That’s why Head Coach Brad Seaburg had this to say to reporters in his opening statement: 

“We told our kids on Monday we thought we were the best team in the state of Illinois, and I think we did everything today to prove that’s certainly a possibility.”

If we take a look at the moments in this game that threatened to steal that hard-fought distinction away from them, and how they responded, we realize this Cary-Grove bunch is, in fact, the best high school football team in the state of Illinois. 

It all started on the second snap of the day. 

Luther Burden III, a Missouri-commit with blazing speed and five-star attributes, took an outside pass from sophomore quarterback Robert “Pops” Battle and ran past the Trojan defense for a 53-yard score to put ESL ahead 6-0 early. 

The Flyers took an early 8-0 advantage after a two-point rush by TaRyan Martin. 

Although the Cary-Grove offense was able to tie up the game after a 31-yard touchdown scamper by Jameson Sheehan and a Nick Hissong two-point conversion run, the Trojans defense wasn’t able to stop the Flyers offense early on. 

They allowed a second straight TD drive, an 8-play, 71-yard road down the field, to give East St. Louis a 14-8 lead. 

One factor in this game that ultimately hurt the Flyers was the fact that they basically didn’t have a kicker. They have gone for two pretty much every time after a touchdown score. 

They did so again after they took their 14-8 lead, and they were stuffed close to the goal-line. That opened the door for a Cary-Grove touchdown drive to knot things up once again, and the Trojans leaped right through that open door. 

Cary-Grove took as many plays, and drove as many yards, as ESL did in their prior drive, to tie the game up at 14. Toby Splitt nailed his first extra point attempt to give the Trojans their first lead of the afternoon. 

Once again, the Flyers offense gave the Cary-Grove defense trouble, as they were able to drive down the field in 12 plays to notch a third lead for East Side after a running-for-his-life scamper for a touchdown by Battle. 

The Cary-Grove defense once again became a brick wall on the two-point play as they stuffed wide receiver Marquese Palmer short of the endzone after a completed pass to the outside. 

The Trojans offense really took their sweet time on their next drive, and it ended very well for them. Cary-Grove took a 21-20 advantage over ESL after a 14-play drive that took a total of 6:38 off the clock. 

Nick Hissong notched the largest lead for the Trojans at that point with a two-point rush to put CG ahead by three. 

For any championship-hopeful team, they have to make a play that will change their trajectory on the path to glory. 

The Trojans surely made that play on the ensuing kickoff. 

Toby Splitt squib-kicked the ball just enough yards to be able to get on top of it and make it a legal onside attempt. Cary-Grove gave themselves a huge momentum advantage when it was determined that they had the ball. 

“When I saw the ball start to cross over the ten-yard marker, I just knew I had to fall on it,” Splitt said. 

Not even three minutes later, the Trojans were able to capitalize on the drive after the onside kick. Jameson Sheehan evaded defenders on third-and-goal and dove into the endzone, extending the Cary-Grove lead to nine, which then increased to ten after the Splitt extra-point attempt. 

The Flyers had one last drive before half to try to get themselves within four points. ESL got into a good spot before the final play before halftime. This last play of the first 24 minutes saw Battle heaving one into the endzone toward Burden, but it was broken up. 

Remember when I talked about how there were times in the game that the best-team-in-Illinois label was stolen from CG, but how they responded told us all they are truly top dogs in the Land of Lincoln? 

Well, these hard moments occurred plenty of times late in the action. 

Exhibit A: 

An 11-play drive that started at their own 11 ended with an outstanding leaping grab in the endzone by Luther Burden III to give East Side the momentum back. 

Before I go on, I want to say this: I would imagine you’re wondering how East St. Louis started that drive at their own 11. That seems a bit off, right? Well, it is. It took some really smart trickery by CG to get it done. 

The Trojans had the ball at their own 28 yard line on fourth down and seven, and it sure looked like they were going to take a huge risk and go for it. 

The Flyers decided to take a timeout because their defense wasn’t set and ready. Cary-Grove then saw that Burden was not on the field, as ESL kept their defense out there, fully expecting CG to go for it. 

The Trojans then implemented something pretty sneaky. They lined up like they were going to risk field position, but Sheehan jogged back a few steps, called his cadence, and dropped the ball on his foot after the snap and let it fly. 

The pigskin eventually rested down at the Flyers 11, a 61-yard kick off the star quarterback’s leg. 

Although Cary-Grove allowed a touchdown anyway, the drive for East Side took 5:07 off the clock. It would likely have taken less time if the Trojans decided to kick to Burden or any of the other cheetahs on the Flyers squad. 

Cary-Grove’s triple-option offense couldn’t be stopped all day by East St. Louis, as another long drive for the Trojans ended with a Nick Hissong nine-yard touchdown run to give Cary-Grove an eight-point cushion. 

However, this was not before a huge fourth-down conversion that made their fifth touchdown possible. 

On fourth-and-17, the opening play of the fourth quarter, Sheehan dropped back, stepped aside from a defender, saw that Noah Riley was left wide open, and got the ball to him for the first down and a mighty 23-yard pickup. 

In fact, that was the only completion of the day for Sheehan on two pass attempts. A pretty amazing completion, I might add. 

“The o-line had great protection. Noah just came up on top,” Sheehan said. 

The CG lead became nine after another great point-after attempt by Toby Splitt. 

The hearts of the Trojans sideline and fan base rose after that drive. They immediately sank on the ensuing kickoff. 

Here is Exhibit B:

Burden ran sideways across half the gridiron to field the ball sent away by Splitt, evaded some defenders, and was gone after that. The Flyers cut their deficit to three after that kick return, and to an atom-small one point after a TaRyan Martin two-point rush. 

The time wasn’t a problem for East Side after that huge play, as they knew they still had 11:37 to get the lead back. 

Mr. Momentum was becoming a Flyers fan very quickly, and it seemed as though they had this game in their hands. 

Well, they did, but they couldn’t pass themselves the win after some great chances to do so. 

Cary-Grove took their next drive a long way, a 14-play, 54-yard journey that ripped off 8:22. 

The ending of that drive spelled opportunity for East St. Louis, and trouble for Cary-Grove. 

Exhibit C: 

Star fullback Hissong was down on the field on one of his late rush attempts, and he later limped off. Ultimately, he didn’t play another snap. More trouble started brewing for the Trojans when Sheehan fumbled and the Flyers recovered. As for the Hissong injury: 

“Coming off [the field] to the sideline, [the trainers] believed that I tore my ACL,” Hissong stated. 

This injury, no matter the severity, is a huge blow to Hissong and his college football prep, if he indeed goes that route. We all know, however, that he will use this injury as motivation to come back even stronger for college football, or whatever he does next. 

At least CG won, right? That’s what Hissong cared about as he walked to the press room, and it was clearly seen. 

The injury to Nick sparked this team on the defensive drive that sealed the deal. After ESL converted a fourth-and-16 with less than two minutes left, the Cary-Grove defense stayed in the zone. 

After allowing first downs on back-to-back plays, the latter being called back due to an illegal shift, the Trojans needed that one play. That one play that would bring a third football state championship back to CG. 

Tight end Riley, who was the recipient of the aforementioned 23-yard fourth-down conversion to set up a nine-yard Hissong touchdown run, came in for the next defensive play, his only one of the game. 

Splitt described it as “having to make the stop of their lives.” Here is how Riley described it: 

“Number 3 (Burden) did a little bubble kind of thing, did a stop. I was right on his hip, and then I saw the quarterback scramble out, toss up the football, and I just went for it,” he said. 

Not only did Riley go for it, it ended up in his hands, and he shut the door on any hope for East St. Louis to clinch its tenth state title all-time. 

Clearly the evidence shown of mistakes and misfortune wasn’t video evidence, the kind of evidence that can’t be argued. 

We can argue that this game should’ve been won by East Side, based on what happened late, before the interception. 

But the Flyers didn’t win. They got called for silly penalties. They threw the interception. 

The Trojans made it known that we can’t argue that they deserved to win. They played as 22 men woven into one. 

This absolutely amazing state-title-clinching victory over the undisputed favorite East St. Louis Flyers gave the Cary-Grove Trojans their third state win all-time, and the second led by Coach Seaburg and his many assistant coaches. 

“I’m at a loss for words right now,” Sheehan said. “It was just such a great atmosphere, just playing the game of my life. It was awesome.”

Late-game hero Riley agreed.

“All the work that we put in, ever since spring, for the spring season…. I’m just speechless. I’m just so happy for everybody, the team, coaches, and the community. The community was there the entire time supporting us. There was a great turnout today. Just amazing,” he said.

The day after the championship win, the school held a celebration for the football team, just like they did in 2018 (amazing article from Mr. Mike Fornelli on that game and celebration at the school, by the way) and 2009. 

Throughout this special celebration of a special team, some great things were said, starting with Principal Lesinski’s comments in the lower gym.

“You all represent the core values of this community, and for that, we are so incredibly proud,” he said. “Thank you for being young men of character, and integrity. In the end, what has made you all champions is your trust in one another, and your coaches. 

“You are not only supremely talented individuals, but you are first and foremost a team. That’s undoubtedly what made the difference yesterday. Your togetherness as a team. When one man fumbled, the other was there to scoop it up. When special teams gave up a touchdown, the offense responded by marching down the field. When the offense turned the ball over, the defense went out, forced the interception, and secured the victory. 

“So teamwork, gentlemen, has never been more perfectly exemplified by you all from start to finish, in what is now being called one of the greatest football games ever played,” Principal Lesinski said.

Trout Valley Mayor Bob Baker, who spoke right after Principal Lesinski, gave a speech with a Marvel theme to capture the team’s heroics.

“This wasn’t David vs. Goliath. This was Goliath vs. Goliath!” he said. “We had our Avengers, intensely focused on the task at hand, despite whatever obstacle, setback, or loss that you experienced. You never let up, or wavered. 

“In the end, when all hope seemed lost, and the smoke cleared, there was our own Tony Stark, standing there holding the glove, or the football, and snap, game over,” he said.

Athletic Director Jim Altendorf provided some fun humor in his statements, and some important words as well. 

“When I woke up, I was reflecting on what took place yesterday, and I wasn’t sure it was real. It truly felt like a dream when I opened my eyes. Then I reached out, felt this medal, and was like, it did happen! 

“Whatever happened, you guys just made it happen. I think the thing about Cary-Grove football, the players, the coaches, is they not only build football players, but they build leaders,” Altendorf said. 

Finally, it was Head Coach Seaburg, a coach who has been a part of all three state titles and all six state appearances in CG football history. 

“I really want to focus on three things today”, Coach stated. 

Coach Seaburg went on to talk about how his team has won the aforementioned three state titles, Coach Passaliga describing them all as “having your own child, three kids”, not liking “one over the other.” 

“This one felt like it was a mission, and it was [a] mission accomplished. That’s what this one felt like. 

“We were on a mission to beat these guys. That’s what we wanted to do, that’s what we intended to do,” he said. 

This later remark made by Coach Seaburg sums up everything pretty well: 

“When you watch their highlight films, what you’re going to see are some individuals making some very, very good individual plays. But the individual didn’t play yesterday. The team won, and our team won. 

“You can’t put teamwork in a tweet. It doesn’t work. You can’t put teamwork in a highlight video. Teamwork is something that has been in this school [forever],” he said.

Also, something to finish off this little story about Cary-Grove football winning it all even with plenty of adversity sent their way. 

“Getting to DeKalb was not the goal. Winning in DeKalb was the goal.” 

East St. Louis had all the glitter, but Cary-Grove had all the grit. 

And yeah, the Trojans won in DeKalb.