It didn't figure. East St. Louis, the program with the great tradition that dates to Wirt Downing, Fred Cameron and Bob Shannon, was bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic than Wheaton Warrenville South. So how in the name of Red Grange's galloping ghost did the Tigers derail the Flyers 26-0 last Saturday in a Class 7A semifinal game in Wheaton?
Because WW South knows how to win under any circumstances. That's why coach Ron Muhitch's team has won 27 games in a row. That's why the Tigers will be favored to win their second state title in a row and sixth since 1992 when they meet Lake Zurich Saturday night in Champaign.
Muhitch, like his mentor John Thorne before him, built his program on speed, not size or great athletes or Division I recruits. WW South's off-season conditioning program is based on developing quickness at all positions, especially on defense. And the philosphy pays off in the playoffs.
"We knew (East St. Louis) had great individual talent and a big-play offense," said linebacker Mark La Belle. "We had to play to our advantage--speed and discipline."
The Tigers have demonstrated that speed and discipline in the last two weeks, shutting out two very big and very athletic teams in Morgan Park and East St. Louis.
East St. Louis' top player, 6-6, 260-pound lineman Brandon Harold, has been offered by Illinois, Arkansas and Kansas. And Ohio State and Michigan are expressing interest.
But WW South neutralized Harold with tackles Will Matte (6-3, 271), who earned a spot on the Sun-Times All-Chicago Area team and is committed to Indiana, and Nathan Williams (6-2, 260).
Meanwhile, WW South's defense made another statement, completely shutting down an East St. Louis offesne that had averaged 39 points per game while winning its last 11 games in a row.
La Belle, linebacking mates Sam Burke and Pat Dansdille, ends Phil Traynor and Jeff Schuman and interior linemen Mike Riss and Matt Egan stifled East St. Louis' zone running attack, which featured a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. And defensive backs Garrett Cook, Tom Marsh, Pat Kelly and Matt Glawe contained the Flyers' swift wide receivers.
"It's an emerging story, our defense," said Muhitch after his Tigers had recorded their third shutout in four playoff games. "They were unheralded at the beginning of the season, even by our staff. How will they do? Now they are playing on a good level."
Matte is the only Division I prospect on the roster. Riss is a 5-8, 162-pound junior. La Belle, the leading tackler and the valedictorian of his senior class, is a 6-1, 197-pounder. Traynor, a 6-1, 191-pounder, leads the team with 10 sacks.
"Defense gets you to the Big Dance in Champaign," Muhitch said. "Our kids see the plays, swarm to the ball and make plays. They expect to create turnovers and they get them. It's a total team effort, not one or two guys."