Evangel downs defending Tennessee champs to open season

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

ALABASTER – One week after laying in a hospital bed battling COVID-19, Evangel Lightning head coach Tim Smith was standing on the sideline leading his team to a season-opening victory on Friday, Aug. 13.

Smith returned home from the hospital on Friday, Aug. 6, and was back on the practice field three days later for game week. And despite an unusually-challenging week, the three-time defending 8-man national champions opened the season with a 41-29 win against defending Tennessee 8-man state champion Franklin Christian Academy.

“It’s been so emotional all week,” Smith said, before having to take a second to compose himself. “My wife was saying it before the game, that a week ago today, I was in a hospital bed. We were just praying everything would be OK. I really didn’t think I would be here.”

Through his time away, the team didn’t stop putting in preparation for the 2021 season, however.

His assistants, the players and the parents made sure the championship tradition lived on.

“Through the week, I got my strength back, but the parents, the coaches and the kids here, man, they did all this work here while I was gone,” Smith said. “It’s just amazing here at Evangel.”

It was an interesting role for Smith to take, however. Normally at the head of the table as the team’s leader, Smith walked in on Monday and wasn’t even sure of the game plan.

“I got here Monday and said, ‘Y’all do what you’ve been doing,’ and then I just kind of inputted myself when I could,” he said. “They really did this one. This is there’s. I just stood over there and hollered a few times and drank a lot of water.”

It became clear what the game plan was early against Franklin Christian, as the Lightning handed the ball to running back Tyler Wilson and did so frequently throughout the night.

After fumbling deep in Franklin Christian territory on the team’s opening drive, Evangel fell behind 3-0 late in the opening quarter off a 22-yard Falcons’ field goal.

Evangel responded quickly with a five-play drive that lasted just 52 seconds.

The Lightning got a 45-yard pass from Eli Whitfield to Judah Thompson, a 5-yard run from Wilson, a 10-yard pass to Kyle Jones and a 3-yard touchdown run from Colton Dorough to take a 7-3 lead with 2:16 left in the opening quarter.

The Falcons answered with a long drive that saw them convert three fourth downs, including a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass to regain a three-point lead.

Wilson, however, started paving the way for the Lightning on the ensuing drive.

His first two carries went for 27 yards on the drive, which set up a 36-yard pass from Whitfield to Jones. Wilson then powered in for his first touchdown of the night to make it 14-10 with 6:55 left in the half.

“Little man, big heart. His vision, he has great vision,” Smith said. “We think our running game is going to be as good as our passing game this year. It could be the best running game I’ve had since I’ve been here. Tyler is really good, and we still had three kids who just came back yesterday from COVID and got in a few plays tonight as well.”

That became the second of four consecutive touchdown drives for Evangel.

After a defensive stop on Franklin Christian’s next drive, the Lightning put together a 10-play drive late in the half to extend the lead at the half.

Wilson carried the ball on five of the 10 plays during the drive, while Whitfield started to showcase his arm. The junior threaded a beautiful 13-yard touchdown pass between two defenders to give Evangel a 20-10 lead in the final seconds of the half.

That stretch of ending the half with two unanswered scores and three touchdowns on the Lightning’s last three drives paid off because they got it to start the second half as well.

Just like they had done to end the first half, they came right back with another long drive to start the third quarter.

Wilson carried the ball for 13 yards on the first three plays of the drive, before Whitfield hit Thompson for 17 yards on fourth down a few plays later.

Following a reverse and a short pass, Wilson toted in a 2-yard touchdown run for his second score of the night and a 27-10 lead midway through the third.

After the two teams traded defensive stops, Franklin Christian capitalized on a blocked punt by scoring a quick touchdown to draw within 10 points in the first five seconds of the final quarter.

The Lightning, however, were in a rhythm and came right back with another lengthy 10-play drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Whitfield to Jones for a 34-17 advantage. Wilson also added 21 more yards on the drive.

Evangel then sealed the fate of the game with a defensive stop on the ensuing Falcons’ drive to get the ball back in the hands of the offense.

The Lightning ran four consecutive times before Whitfield hit Dorough on a shovel pass that ended as a 19-yard touchdown and 41-17 lead with 4:26 to play.

Franklin added two late scores, but Evangel’s lead was too much over the final four minutes.

“This is a good win for us against a good program, a defending state champion. We really built it up, our kids built it up, so it was a good win for us,” Smith said. “It’s big for us to get a lot of our young kids some confidence early in the season.”