Riverside-Brookfield High School quarterback T.J. Sloan (foreground in white jersey) heaves a pass downfield while escaping from relentless East St. Louis pressure during the Bulldogs’ 66-0 loss in the first round of the IHSA Class 5A state tournament on Oct. 30 in East St. Louis. | Bob Skolnik/Contributor

They call the Clyde C. Jordan Memorial Stadium at East St. Louis Senior High School the “House of Pain.” That proved to be the case, at least in an emotional sense, for the Riverside-Brookfield High School football team, which saw its season come to an end as defending state champion East Saint Louis routed the Bulldogs 66-0 in a first-round Class 6A playoff game Oct. 30 in East Saint Louis.

East St. Louis’ Christopher Bennett set the tone from the start when he caught the opening kickoff at the 9-yard line and raced practically untouched 91 yards to the end zone. 

East St. Louis then quickly scored three more touchdowns in the first quarter and scored three more times in the second quarter to lead 54-0 at the half as the Bulldogs simply could not cope with the speed, size and strength of the aptly nicknamed Flyers, who played without their best player, wide receiver Luther Burden III, ranked as the sixth best senior in the country.

“We were just outmatched and undermanned,” said RBHS coach Brendan Curtin.

The week leading up to the game provided more drama than the game itself. Upon finding out that the Bulldogs (5-5) were matched up with East St. Louis Senior, which has won eight state championships, some players and their parents, began to talk about forfeiting the game. 

A number of players reportedly skipped practice on Oct. 26 and a players’ poll was taken about forfeiting the game. Other players were adamant about playing. During a team meeting on Oct. 27 night, some leaders, including senior quarterback T.J. Sloan, center C.J. Zanieski, senior cornerback Vinnie Maietta, sophomore offensive lineman Jackson Ramos made the case for playing and carried the day. 

“For myself and the staff we were always playing, it was just a matter of who we were rolling out there,” Curtin said.

Despite the lopsided loss, Zanieski said he is glad the game was played. 

“Some people didn’t want to play — some of those people it was their parents who didn’t want them to play, not even their decision — but it was my thought that we signed up to play football so we should go out and play,” Zanieski said. “People were afraid of getting hurt, but nobody got hurt. We got beat, but it was definitely an experience getting to play what is obviously the best team in Illinois.”

The Bulldogs played without three of their regular offensive starters. A handful of reserves also did not make the trip. Curtin declined to talk about the absent players. 

“I will tell you how proud I am of the guys that are here,” Curtin said. “There were people from outside of the circle that had their questions and concerns and doubts, and I’m just proud of the crew that we brought up here and their ability to fight for four quarters of football.”

Even without Burden III, East St. Louis (8-2), whose two losses came to out-of-state teams that are ranked in the top 10 in the country, is loaded with NCAA Division I recruits, including cornerback Toriano Pride who is headed to Clemson.

East St. Louis barely needed to throw the ball as its massive offensive line, which outweighed the Bulldogs defensive line by approximately 100 pounds per man, opened up gaping holes for their speedy running backs.

The Flyers also blocked two punts, returning one for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. The Bulldogs’ offense was throttled by an East St. Louis defense that has not given up a point to an Illinois opponent all season. The Bulldogs managed just two first downs in the game, one on a 12-yard completion from Sloan to Ryan Novak in the first quarter. The other on a 7-yard run by Novak late in the second quarter. 

The Bulldogs’ best moment came in the first quarter when Maietta delivered a hit on an East St. Louis receiver after a pass completion, jarring the ball loose for a fumble recovered by Drew Swiatek. Maietta, a 5-7, 170-pound senior, epitomized the toughness the Bulldogs displayed, throwing his body against far bigger and faster opponents.

“He really came on strong late in the season,” Curtin said. “He’s versatile. We really had him focus on defense. He’s sort of the heart and soul of that senior class, if you will. I’m really proud of what he’s been able to do in his varsity career.”

While RBHS finished the year losing four in a row, the Bulldogs future looks positive. They will return running back/linebacker Ryan Novak and lose only one starter, Zanieski, from the offense line. 

Sophomore Diego Gutierrez split time at quarterback with Sloan and is a fast and elusive runner who should develop more passing accuracy with experience. Sophomore Anthony Petrucci did a good job filling in for Matt Novak at wide receiver and a number of good defensive players return, including Swiatek and linebacker Petar Sofeski.

“We graduate some talent and there’s a lot of guys we’re going to miss, but no question, it feels like within each position group there’s a lot of guys that are coming back and that’s encouraging,” Curtin said.