The dynasty continues: Evangel claims sixth straight national championship with dominant win over PAC

Published 2:35 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

VERNON, FL – After last year’s undefeated run to the national championship, Evangel Christian Lightning coach Tim Smith said the 2022 team was the most special group he has coached and that their success would be hard to top.

It turns out the best way to top it was to do it again.

Evangel won a sixth straight NHSA 8-man national championship by defeating the Providence Athletic Club (PAC) Panthers 49-14 on Monday, Nov. 13 in Vernon, Florida, just two days after they beat the Ft. Wayne King’s Crusaders 52-14 in the semifinals.

“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to play two football games in 72 hours,” Evangel coach Tim Smith said. “I’m proud we kept the winning streak alive.”

Smith was proud of the senior class of 2024 as they now exit Evangel with four national championships and three state championships, including an active 33-game winning streak, which is the longest active streak across all classifications in Alabama.

In the championship game, the Lightning attacked from the first whistle and jumped out to a quick two-score lead to set the tone on both ends of the field.

Evangel’s defense held PAC at midfield on the opening drive, and Kemp Swords kicked off the scoring with a rushing touchdown to put the Lightning up 8-0 with 7:22 left in the first quarter.

After getting great field position from a turnover on downs, and after a pair of runs from Caeleb Austin, he scored the Lightning’s second touchdown to increase the lead to 15-0.

PAC responded late in the first quarter by overcoming Evangel’s pass defense for its first touchdown of the day, cutting the lead to 15-8.

Then, with 8:53 left in the second quarter, Austin dropped multiple defenders en route to the end zone for his second touchdown of the game, and Evangel’s third, putting the Lightning up 22-8.

PAC nearly got back within a score with a solid drive, but Evangel held strong close to the goal line to force a turnover on downs and regain possession.

The Lightning struck again with a 68-yard touchdown pass from Swords to Zion Thompson, and then they added another score before halftime with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Will Welch to take a 35-8 lead into the locker room.

The Panthers drew six points closer with a 90-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, but Evangel responded with Austin’s third score of the night.

From there, the Lightning cruised to victory and tacked on a 70-yard touchdown pass from Swords to Cade Joiner to put the finishing touches on a 49-14 win and a sixth straight national title.

Swords went 10-for-16 passing for 231 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown off nine carries. He is now the first quarterback in Evangel history to throw for over 2,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season.

Austin led the Lightning on the ground with 113 yards and three touchdowns off eight carries. Joiner caught three passes for 97 yards and a touchdown and Thompson had 70 receiving yards and a touchdown.

In addition, Welch had 33 receiving yards and a touchdown and Clay Stanton had 31 receiving yards.

Defensively, Joshua Looman led Evangel with 11 tackles as well as one pass tip. Hayden Black had 10 tackles, including one sack, and Cole Romero had nine tackles, including three tackles-for-loss.

Eli Black had five tackles and Zion Thompson took an interception and two pass tips. Grady Watkins also recovered a fumble in addition to his three tackles.

Before the championship game, Evangel first defeated Ft. Wayne King’s 52-14 in the semifinals on Saturday. The Lightning were powered by six first half touchdowns to take a commanding 39-6 lead into the halftime break, and they controlled the game from there in the second half.

Swords was 14-for-17 passing for 214 yards and three touchdowns, highlighted by a 52-yard touchdown to Joiner and a 37-yard completion. He also ran for 106 yards and two touchdowns off nine carries, with the scores coming from a 64-yard run and a 35-yard carry.

Also on the ground, Austin ran for 83 yards on six carries, Colton Dorough and Stone Henderson both rushed for 44 yards, with Dorough adding a touchdown. Shace Green scored a touchdown on the ground as well as the Lightning ran for 295 yards as a team.

Joiner led all receivers with 88 yards and two touchdowns off five receptions. Welch had 59 yards from three catches, and Stanton added 54 yards and a touchdown from four receptions.

Over on defense, Hayden Black led the team with nine tackles and a sack, and Looman racked up seven tackles, including one tackle for loss. Cole Romano and Stanton each added a sack as well.

The Lightning also grabbed four turnovers, including an interception from Austin and fumble recoveries by Welch, Stanton and Reed Castleberry.