The 5 words that launched East Peoria's football resurgence: 'This is your team now'

Steve Stein
Journal Star
Limestone's Gabriel Zeigler-Harris powers through the Limestone defense in the first half Friday, Sept. 9, 2022 in East Peoria.

EAST PEORIA — The eye-opening turnaround of the East Peoria football team actually began last season.

Oct. 22, 2021, to be exact. The Raiders were walking into their buses outside Corwin Clatt Field to head back to the high school after a 43-0 shellacking by Washington that left East Peoria with a final 0-9 record.

"As I was getting on the bus, Coach (Dustin) Jefferson told me, 'This is your team now,'" Gabriel Zeigler-Harris said.

After being a part of East Peoria's running back by committee strategy for two seasons, Zeigler-Harris is the Raiders' feature back this season.

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East Peoria's opening night 52-0 loss to Streator has been followed by two streak-ending victories.

The Raiders beat Aurora Central Catholic 32-26 in Week 2 to end a 26-game losing streak and beat Limestone 33-20 in Week 3, a win that snapped a 21-game Mid-Illini Conference losing streak.

Before those two wins, the last time the Raiders tasted victory was a 19-6 win over Mid-Illini foe Canton in Week 4 in 2018.

East Peoria will travel to Canton (0-3, 0-1) on Friday.

Zeigler-Harris ran for all 10 East Peoria touchdowns in the Aurora Central Catholic and Limestone games, five each night. He rushed for 173 yards against Aurora Catholic and 246 yards against Limestone.

The senior was quick to give credit to the Raiders' offensive linemen after the Limestone game, saying he wouldn't have any yardage or touchdowns without them.

The East Peoria Raiders prepare to take the field against the Limestone Rockets on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022 at Clatt Field in East Peoria.

So who are those guys up front?

Three seniors and two sophomores who have grown since the Week 1 loss to Streator into a tight-knit group that "pushes each other in practice and has learned to believe and trust one another," Jefferson said.

The only veterans on the East Peoria offensive line are senior right tackle Nate Nesbitt and sophomore left tackle Connor Liescheidt.

Sophomore center Gavin Eppers, senior left guard Noah Downin and senior right guard Cody Hinzman are learning the ropes. Hinzman is a converted tight end.

"It was the best feeling in the world to win those games (against Aurora Central Catholic and Limestone)," Nesbitt said. "But we have to keep working hard. This is not the East Peoria team that people expect."

Nesbitt, a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder, loves blocking for Zeigler-Harris. He said knows if he and his fellow offensive linemen do their job, Zeigler-Harris will make the defense pay.

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"If there's an open hole, Gabe will find it," Nesbitt said.

When Zeigler-Harris takes a rare break from running the ball, Josh Knight is a "good complimentary running back," says Jefferson.

"It's nice," Zeigler-Harris said, "to have another running back who can do just as well as I can."

Zeiger-Harris is a four-year starter for East Peoria. After three years of playing cornerback, he's moved to outside linebacker on defense this season.

At 5-9, 180, he's not one of the bigger linebackers around.

"That's true," he said. "Our coaches wanted to get our playmakers closer to the ball on defense."

In addition to playing a new position on defense this season, Zeigler-Harris has added a new skill to his football repertoire. He's East Peoria's punter, and an effective one, too. He had a 51-yard punt against Limestone.

East Peoria head coach Dustin Jefferson yells instructions to his team as they battle Limestone in the first half Friday, Sept. 9, 2022 in East Peoria.

Punting wasn't in the plans for Zeiger-Harris this season.

"Brodie Windell was our punter, but he got hurt in the Streator game, so Coach Jefferson asked Josh Knight and myself to start punting," Zeigler-Harris said.

"I've learned to punt on my own, with help from our coaches during practice."

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Zeigler-Harris also is an outfielder on the East Peoria baseball team and a sprinter on the Raiders' boys track and field team.

He wants to play football and baseball in college. He's attracted interest from several small colleges for football, but so far only Monmouth College has assured him that he can play football and baseball. He said he doesn't plan to make his college decision until next spring.

"If would be great if I could play football and baseball in college," he said, "but what's most important is finding the right fit."

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