FOOTBALL

Another streak stopped: How East Peoria football discovered its winning ways

Steve Stein
Journal Star
East Peoria's Gabriel Zeigler-Harris runs through the Limestone defense in the first half Friday, Sept. 9, 2022 in East Peoria. The Raiders defeated the Rockets 33-20.

EAST PEORIA — Gabriel Zeigler-Harris is making headlines and East Peoria is fast becoming the story of the early part of the high school football season.

Zeigler-Harris ran for five touchdowns for the second straight game Friday night, leading the Raiders to a 33-20 victory over Limestone in a Mid-Illini Conference opener.

The win snapped East Peoria's 21-game Mid-Illini losing streak. The Raiders (2-1, 1-0) ended a 26-game overall losing skid the previous week with a 32-26 victory at Aurora Catholic Central.

Before those two wins, East Peoria hadn't won since beating Mid-Illini foe Canton 19-6 in Week 4 in 2018.

It's been a long time since East Peoria has had consistent success on the gridiron. Coming into this season, the Raiders were 14-62 since 2013 and third-year coach Dustin Jefferson was 0-13.

Those numbers didn't seem so cringe-worthy Friday night.

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'Reap the rewards'

After East Peoria players celebrated with their student cheering section outside the Raiders' locker room at Corwin Clatt Field, Zeigler-Harris reflected on what has transpired the last two weeks.

"Something clicked for us last week," he said. "We've seen now that it's all about the team. When we all fight for four quarters, you reap the rewards on Friday night.

"As for me, I don't score five touchdowns, I get any yards without our offensive line. These guys open holes for me."

Zeigler-Harris ran 26 times for 246 yards against Limestone (0-3, 0-1). He scored on runs of 2, 4, 12, 34 and 70 yards and ran for a 2-point conversion, using his speed and quickness to slip away and race past would-be tacklers.

The senior had 173 yards rushing against Aurora Catholic Central and had another touchdown run and a pick six called back because of penalties.

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Zeigler-Harris rarely comes off the field. Besides running back, he also plays cornerback, punts and is on East Peoria's kickoff return team. His 51-yard punt and Henry Kaufman's fumble recovery on Limestone's first play after the punt set up his third touchdown run.

"Anything the team needs," Zeigler-Harris said about his many jobs.

Jefferson pointed to a new culture as the reason for the Raiders' early success in 2022.

"These kids believe in each other, and are playing with confidence," he said. "And they know that even though people are talking about Gabriel (Zeigler-Harris), nobody on the team is bigger than another.

"This all started back in our winter workouts. We were getting 30 kids a day in there for workouts."

There were other East Peoria heroes besides Zeigler-Harris in the win over Limestone.

Cody Hinzman, Aidin Hindert and Kaufman each had a fumble recovery, and Hindert also had an interception.

Kaufman also had the block of the night, wiping out a Limestone player on a 37-yard pass in the first quarter from Andrew Kaufmann to Thomas Flowers.

Tough go for Limestone

Keimon Lee (7) and the East Peoria defense force a fumble from Limestone running back Izzy Aguilar-Nunez in the first quarter Friday, Sept. 9, 2022 at Clatt Field in East Peoria. The Raiders shot down the Rockets 33-20.

New Limestone coach Jeff Schmider, who had been an assistant coach for the Rockets since 1995, praised East Peoria.

"They played hard, and they outplayed us," he said. "We gave up big plays and made mistakes, which has been our calling card this season.

"I knew what I was getting into when I took this job. We have a young team. We have only four seniors who are getting playing time. A lot of our kids should be playing on Monday nights (in sophomore games), not Friday nights.

"We'll get back to work and try to fix things."

Junior quarterback Caleb Bieneman had a hand in all three Limestone touchdowns against East Peoria. He ran for a 6-yard score in the third quarter and threw two TD passes in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, connecting with Kenyon Johnson on a 52-yarder and Virgil Powell on a 3-yarder after East Peoria had moved in front 33-6.

Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or stevestein21@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.