Evangel claims second straight ACSC state title over Lighthouse

Published 12:14 am Saturday, November 4, 2023

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

ALABASTER – After the Evangel Christian Lightning trailed 8-6 after the first quarter and led by just four going into halftime, it was an open question as to if Evangel would fall in the state title game just like in 2020 and 2021.

But in the second half, the five-time defending national champions Lightning proved why they haven’t lost a game since that 2021 state championship game.

Evangel beat the Lighthouse Homeschool Warriors, 41-14, in the Alabama Christian Schools Conference (ACSC) Championship Game at the Evangel Sports Complex on Nov. 3 to extend the longest win streak in Alabama to 31 games.

“It always feels good when you can win one, but this one’s kind of special to go two seasons undefeated so far, and a special group of seniors, 16 of them,” Evangel coach Tim Smith said after the win. “It’s just a special night for us, and a special year for us.”

The Lightning opened the game strong on defense by blowing up a play on third down to force a Warriors punt.

Over on offense, Evangel came out firing with a near miss to the end zone on the first play and a Kemp Swords first down run right afterwards. Swords also converted another first down before hitting Caeleb Austin for a 25-yard touchdown to go up 6-0 with 8:27 left in the first quarter.

Lighthouse quickly responded with a touchdown run up the sideline after a long pass play, and after a two-point conversion, the Warriors led 8-6.

After that, the defenses settled in for a tightly fought battle for every inch. In the next eight drives that the Lightning and Warriors combined for, they only recorded one first down each as the defensive pressure bottled up both high-powered offenses.

Evangel broke open the deadlock midway through the second quarter with a series of solid runs by Swords capped off by a 19-yard touchdown run by the Evangel signal caller.

That put the Lightning back up, 12-8, and they held on to that lead on the next drive with a great pass rush and coverage that took away the Warriors’ options.

Evangel tried to strike before halftime, but after a 25-yard completion, a pass into the end zone was intercepted and the Lightning went into the break up 12-8.

The Lightning came out of the locker room motivated to score, and they got going quickly as Swords flipped the ball to Will Welch, who heaved the ball 32 yards for a momentum-gaining completion.

Swords then got yards on the ground to set up a 14-yard rushing touchdown by Cade Joiner to extend the lead to 20-8 with 9:34 left in the third.

Lighthouse fought back and quickly scored a 25-yard touchdown for six more points. However, the two-point conversion failed, and those proved to be the Warriors last points.

After the teams traded punts, Swords reeled off a massive 44-yard run to the Warriors 19, and then Austin hauled in his second score of the night from a 27-yard pass by Swords shortly into the fourth quarter.

With the Warriors needing an answer, they struggled to field the kick and started the drive on their own 1-yard line. That would be where they ended the drive three plays later after a pair of near safeties forced a punt.

Evangel got the ball back in plus territory, and it took advantage by scoring. Joiner ran for a first down to the 8-yard line, and Austin scored from there on the next play for his first rushing touchdown and third overall. After the two-point pass to Clay Stanton, the Lightning led 34-14.

The Lightning dialed up the pressure on the ensuing Warriors drive and recorded sacks on third and fourth down to force a turnover on downs.

That gave Evangel the ball on the Lighthouse 20, and the Lightning wrapped up the scoring with Swords flipping the ball to Joiner, who threw a pass to Stanton that he got up and grabbed for the touchdown.

Evangel’s tight coverage and strong blitz kept Lighthouse from scoring again, and the Lightning lined up in victory formation to celebrate the 41-14 win and another state title.

Swords was 13-for-22 passing for 141 yards and three touchdowns and had 13 carries for 117 yards and a touchdown.  Austin had six carries for 43 yards and a touchdown as well as two catches for 52 yards and two receiving touchdowns. Stanton had three catches for 38 yards.

Smith prepared his players all week for a battle, and at halftime, he told them to keep playing and fighting against a great team in Lighthouse, and that second half effort made the difference.

“I said, ‘we told y’all before they got here it would be four quarters,’ and we got fortunate there in the third quarter,” Smith said. “We found a few things that worked for us and pulled away at the end, but that’s a good football team over there.”

Smith also credited the speed and tenacity on defense for giving the offense a chance to find its footing and rack up points.

“We’re not very big, we’re just real fast,” Smith said. “It’s our team’s speed and the way they run to the football, the way they gather around the football. There’s eight bodies around the ball every time. And that’s what they did all night long. They kept us in the ball game, as we like to say. They held a rope to the offense, figured out what we needed to do.”

On defense, Grady Watkins had 11 tackles, including a sack and tackle for loss. Cole Romano, Stanton, Austin and Hayden Black each had six tackles, and Joiner and Romano each had a sack. Zion Thompson dominated the coverage with five pass tips.

After the game, in addition to the trophy ceremony, the ACSC presented the Mr. Football award to Black and the championship game Most Outstanding Player award to Austin for his three touchdown night.

Both were also honored on the All-Conference Regular Season Team, along with their teammates Zane Barlow, Welch, Carson Donovan, Romano, who also earned a spot on the Doug Harrison Christian Character Team, Stanton, Swords, Thompson and  Watkins.

Evangel will now travel to Panama City Beach, Florida for the national playoffs from Nov. 10-13 as it seeks a sixth straight national championship in 8-man football.

The Lightning are going into the biggest weekend of the season with the same goal as the last five seasons: win.

“We know what this team will do,” Smith said. “This team’s never going to quit on us. They’re going to fight to the end. And they did tonight. And I know when we get to Panama City, we’re going to enjoy it, we’re going to let them enjoy it, but we’re going to win it if we can.”