Schedule Breakdown: Evangel faces top opponents in country as they defend national title

Published 8:49 pm Friday, July 14, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Even though success on the national stage is the standard for the Evangel Lightning, 2022 was one of the best seasons in school history.

Not only did the Lightning win their fifth straight NHSA eight-man national championship, but they went undefeated and won the ACSC state championship for the first time since 2019.

Head coach Tim Smith called the group one of the most special and talented teams he’s ever coached. There was no denying that as seniors like Eli Whitfield and Judah Thompson supercharged the Evangel offense and powered them to new heights.

Now, those seniors are gone, and while Smith describes 2023 as a rebuilding year, they still have the same goal of winning a national championship and have a schedule befitting of a five-time defending champion.

Their schedule includes four state champions, the national runners-up, fierce rivals and one of the toughest eight-man regions in the country.

The Lightning open up their slate on Saturday, August 12 when they face North Carolina’s Cary Christian in the Black Bear Brawl in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. On top it being an opportunity to impress on a big, out-of-state stage, they get a great test against one of the top teams in the southeast.

Cary Christian’s quarterback is a 6-foot-5, 240-pound dual threat who will draw most of the Evangel defense’s attention. Smith has already started game-planning for how they will face him, and their goal is to not let him get space outside so they can contain him and get him on the ground.

From there, they travel to Pinson on August 19 to face East Central HomeSchool, who should once again be one of the top teams in the state. Last year in the regular season, they easily handled Ezekiel and Lighthouse HomeSchool, two of Evangel’s perennial rivals for the state championship, and they will be coming in looking for revenge after a disappointing performance in the state playoffs.

That game will kick off their regional slate, but afterwards, they will face four straight non-region opponents to prepare them for the playoffs. The Lightning will open their home schedule against Evangel Montgomery on August 25, which is always a tough test.

Afterwards, they will face Southern Prep Academy on September 1, who the Lightning beat 41-0 last season on the road in Camp Hill. From there, they will take on the Carolina Wildcats on September 8, who weren’t originally on the schedule but agreed to come to Evangel for the second straight year to give the Lightning another out-of-state test.

Afterwards, they will go against the Freedom Cowboys in Huntsville on September 15 in one of the biggest eight-man matches in the nation. The Cowboys have only lost four games over the last two seasons, and all four have come at the hand of Evangel. Two of those have come in the regular season, and the other two have been in the national championship game. Freedom will be looking for revenge this year, and their matchup should be one of the most physical and emotional battles of the year.

Once they come home from facing their budding rivals from north Alabama, they have back-to-back regional games as they resume their battle for a back-to-back ACSC championship. First, they face Lighthouse HomeSchool at home on September 22, who have been one of the top teams in the state but haven’t been able to figure out Evangel recently. Expect Lighthouse to have this game circled on their calendar after being beaten by Evangel 55-15 in the 2022 ACSC championship game.

After Lighthouse, Evangel takes on their biggest rival, Ezekiel Academy, in one of the most anticipated games for both Lightning and Knights fans every year. Evangel easily handled Ezekiel in their two meetings last year, first in the regular season with a 63-18 win, and then in the ACSC semifinals, 42-6, both times at Evangel. This year, the setting flips to Ezekiel, the site of two Evangel losses in 2021.

Once they wrap up their regional doubleheader, Evangel will travel to the Nashville area to take on Franklin Christian Academy on October 6. It’s a battle of the Tennessee state champions versus the Alabama state champions, and fans can expect fireworks and a fantastic contest between two of the nation’s top eight-man teams.

Evangel then wraps up their regular season against Southern Christian, which also serves as their region finale. While Evangel won last year’s meeting 54-7, repeat success is not guaranteed and if the Lightning are not careful, they could be in for a battle ahead of the postseason.

From there, it’s hopefully on to the ACSC semifinals and championship game, and then to the NHSA national playoffs in Panama City Beach, Florida, which is the destination every season for Evangel as they aim to defend their five straight national championships with new faces but a lot of talent that will be improved through tough game experiences in 2023.