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  • Writer's pictureAaron Ferguson

The difference between Flyers past and state title contenders? Coach Mark Chambers.

East St. Louis coach Mark Chambers brings the Flyers back to the IHSA State Finals for the first time since 2000. (Photo credit: Jimmy J. Simmons)

PEORIA -- It’s no secret that Mark Chambers is the reason for East St. Louis’ state finals trip. Just ask his players.

For Terrence Hargrove Jr. and the senior class, Chambers is their fifth coach in three years, taking over on Jan. 4, 2018. The final two month of last season built the foundation for this year’s state run. On paper, the Flyers finished 9-5 but they closed by winning six straight then losing at the buzzer in the 2018 Sweet Sixteen.

“Basketball-wise, we didn’t care about defense,” Hargrove Jr. said. “We just thought our offense was going to win us games. He’s a defensive coach so when he first came in, the first thing he talked to us (about) was defense. We had to buy-in to the system quick because the postseason was right around the corner.

“We knew (this) year our season could be pretty good, and our season turned out great but state ... he got us here and we can’t thank him enough.”

It wasn’t just defense that has transformed the East Side program. Chambers’ homecoming was about building young men up to be more than just basketball players.

“I try to tell these guys it’s not about the basketball aspect,” Chambers said. “This is about life and using basketball to teach us life lessons. Things won’t stop us from being successful, they’ll help us be successful because we’ll learn from some of the mistakes that we’ve made and some of the things we’re doing right.

“I teach the guys to be good people, be good students, be good citizens — to strive for greatness in everything that they do. That’s our goal every day.”

It’s lesson Chambers learned from his legendary coach, Bennie Lewis. Chambers draws from all of his different coaches to form his own style. That includes his minor league baseball hitting coach, Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Stargell, from Chambers’ time in the Atlanta Braves system.

“Baseball is the most humbling sport,” Chambers said. “(Stargell) would always tell me that you can not go on this roller coaster ride. One night I could tell when you go 4-for-4 and then you might go 0-for-4 and then you go up-and-down. I always draw on the board this roller coaster ride and I always tell them that you can’t go on this ride and I draw a flat line straight through the middle of it. That’s what I tell them all the time we have to stay calm, cool and humble. We can’t go up-and-down.”

One of the focal points was for Chambers to beef up the schedule to bring back a national relevancy to East Side hoops. He wanted his team to play in hostile environments, such as Detroit Ford, which was an eight-and-a-half hour trip after playing Belleville East the night before.

“I wanted us to put them through as many things as possible during the regular season so when it was time for the playoffs, they know that we’ll be okay,” Chambers said.

Now, the Flyers will play for a basketball state championship for the first time in program history against Chicago Bogan on Saturday at 1 p.m.

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