LEMONT — TaRyan Martin left his sleeves at home Saturday.
Who needs them when it’s below freezing and the gusting wind brings the temperature closer to 10 degrees?
“When you’re out in it, you don’t really feel it,” Martin said.
Martin made sure every would-be tackler felt him.
A sophomore running back for the East St. Louis football team, Martin rushed 40 times for 340 yards and scored four touchdowns as the Flyers rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to beat Lemont 32-29 in a Class 6A semifinal at Lemont High.
The No. 1 large school in the STLhighschoolsports.com rankings and the No. 6 seed, East St. Louis (11-2) advanced to play Prairie Ridge (12-1) in the state championship game at 1 p.m. Nov. 26 at Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Illinois.
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It’s the third consecutive Class 6A state championship game appearance for the Flyers, who won the program’s ninth title in 2019 and were runner-up to Cary-Grove last season by one point. The Illinois High School Association canceled the playoffs in the 2020-21 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
East Side can thank its gargantuan offensive line and Martin for punching its ticket back to the title game. The Flyers were in an unfamiliar position against an in-state opponent. East St. Louis was not scored on in its first three playoff games.
The No. 1 seed, Lemont (12-1) needed just two plays before it found the end zone. Senior running back Nate Wrublik ripped off a 41-yard touchdown run through the heart of East Side’s defense for a 7-0 lead with 9 minutes and 25 seconds to play in the first.
East St. Louis fumbled on the first play of its ensuing drive, giving Lemont a short field. It took Lemont five plays to go 23 yards and on fourth-and-inches at the 2, Wrublik scored again for a 14-0 lead with 7:02 in the first. Wrublik rushed 24 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns.
Winners of 10 consecutive games, it’d been awhile since the Flyers were in a hole much less in such short order. Their next drive ended in a punt. The one after that lasted two plays before Lemont senior Dylan Swanstrom intercepted junior quarterback Robert “Pops” Battle at the 30.
East St. Louis’s defense forced Lemont’s second punt of the first half. The Flyers took over at their own 15 with 5:11 to go before halftime, the home crowd in a frenzy and the home team holding all the momentum.
“Sadly we’ve been in that situation before,” East Side senior right tackle Miles McVay said. “It’s been a little minute, but you don’t forget moments like that. We’re just a cohesive unit. This is a brotherhood right here. We’re built for this.”
Martin put his hard hat on and went to work. The 5-foot-8 and 175 pounder rushed nine times on the 12-play drive and punched in a 7-yard touchdown with 1:01 in the second quarter. It was a punishing drive that ended with Martin flat on his back in the end zone but gave the Flyers a spark as they went into the locker room trailing 14-6.
After being held in check much of the first half, Martin and the offensive line took over in the second half.
“I was running soft at first. I had to get a feel for the game. That was on me,” Martin said. “I looked at my O-linemen and told them we had to get this going. I don’t want this to be our last game.”
Lemont’s opening possession of the third ended in a punt after a three-and-out. It took the Flyers three plays to score again, this time Martin rushed for a 35-yard touchdown to make it 14-12 with 8:48 in the third.
“It shows what kind of character our kids got. We knew (Lemont would) come out fighting,” East Side coach Darren Sunkett said. “We had to match their intensity. We got down, but we didn’t get down on ourselves. We kept fighting and you see the outcome.”
Going into the wind Lemont responded with its own lengthy drive. After the 10th play Lemont was faced with fourth-and-11 at the East Side 43. In punt formation, Swanstrom faked the kick and took off toward the right sideline. He needed 11 yards and managed to get 10 and two-thirds. He was mere inches short of the first.
Running behind McVay, right guard Terran Scarborough and pulling left guard Paris Patterson, Martin once again toted the load as the Flyers marched toward the end zone on their next possession.
“That’s what they hang their hat on,” Lemont coach Bret Kooi said. “They’ve got some big guys up front, coach them up and do things really well and they took advantage of it.”
Lemont managed to bring Martin down for a seven-yard loss on first-and-10 at the 22. On second down it held him for no gain. Battle’s pass on third down was incomplete.
Facing fourth-and-17 at Lemont’s 27 and trailing 14-12, East Side went for it. Battle dropped back and when the time was right took off toward the left sideline for a 19-yard gain and the first down.
On the next play Martin scored from 10 yards out and East St. Louis led 18-14, its first lead of the game.
Lemont immediately responded. On the fifth play of its next drive senior quarterback Payton Salomon fired a dart down the middle of the field that senior receiver Luke Wallace caught in stride for a 38-yard touchdown to put Lemont ahead 21-18 with 9:22 remaining.
Martin and his bodyguards countered. On the second play of the Flyers’ next drive the line bulldozed a running lane and Martin broke off a 76-yard touchdown run down the right sideline with 8:36 to go. Senior linebacker and running back Marquis “Soup” Palmer came on and scored the two-point conversion to put East Side ahead 26-21. But after Palmer scored he spiked the ball in the end zone to celebrate and was hit with his first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
East St. Louis’s defense held and earned a turnover on downs after it broke up Salomon’s pass on fourth-and-1 at the Flyers’ 37.
Four plays later — and running with fresh legs — Palmer powered through right side and scored a 33-yard touchdown for a 32-21 lead with 4:18 to play. The party was on for the Flyers, right?
On the first play of its ensuing drive Lemont lost seven yards but Palmer was tagged with his second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and ejected from the game. Per National Federation of High School rules, Palmer is suspended for the Flyers’ next game.
With one of its defensive leaders banished to the bench, East Side was unable to corral Wallace who caught a quick screen pass from Salomon and turned it into a 55-yard touchdown. Lemont got the two-point conversion and trailed 32-29 with 3:36. Salomom passed for 107 yards as he completed 4 of 13 passes.
Martin tried to ice the game and bleed out the clock, but Lemont forced the Flyers into a fourth-and-3 at the 48. Sophomore receiver Christopher Bennett Jr. handled punting duties for the Flyers and kicking into a nasty headwind managed to boot the ball rugby style where it was downed at Lemont’s 31.
Lemont’s final hopes died when East St. Louis senior defensive lineman Keshawn “Keke” Hayden and junior linebacker Austin Franklin forced Salomon to run and throw the ball in a hurry where it landed incomplete.
Lemont had pushed East St. Louis as far as any in-state opponent all season, but it was cold comfort for Kooi and his team.
“They’re playing next week in the state championship game and we’re going home,” Kooi said. “You’re proud of our kids for what they did and how tough we played them. You want to be there (at state) and when you’re that close it’s tough.”
East St. Louis survived its toughest test yet as it chases redemption after last year’s one-point title-game loss. This is the game East St. Louis has been working towards for the better part of a year. It has the tough, hardnosed running of Martin and his blockers to thank for it.
“I was expecting to put the game on my back so that’s what I did. I played for all the seniors, all my brothers and I did what I had to do,” Martin said. “That right side of the line just works hard. Really my whole offensive line. They’re all my big brothers. They’re some hogs for real.”