Wrapping up a 9-1 regular season and third-place finish in the West 10 Media Power 10 Rankings, the Evangelical Christian School Eagles entered the Division II-AA State Football playoffs as the No. 1 seed out of the West Region with the best overall record.
The Eagles’ journey to Cookeville began with a 45-7 win over the Harding Academy Lions. Next, ECS dispatched Battle Ground Academy 13-9 to earn a Semifinal showdown with area rival the Lausanne Lynx.
ECS defeated Lausanne convincingly 45-24 to book a championship game clash with the Christ Presbyterian Academy Lions. On Dec. 5, the Eagles earned a 17-14 victory over CPA to claim the 2019 Division II-AA State title.
The win over the Lions also secured ECS the third-ever West 10 Media Last Team Standing Award. Previous winners were the 2017 Brighton Cardinals (Class 5A Semifinals) and 2018 Germantown Red Devils (Class 6A Quarterfinals).
“It’s really about the kids,” said ECS Head Coach Trey Adams. “As that clock hit zero, all I could do was think about the seniors and what they meant to this team. All the adversity they had to overcome, I was so happy for our kids, the seniors and our community.”
The BlueCross Bowl showdown against CPA took a “family” effort with all three phases of the game contributing. The Lions entered the game as defending State champions but ready to avenge a season-opening 30-6 loss to ECS.
CPA led 14-10 with slightly more than 6 minutes left in the game. ECS got a huge play from quarterback Jacob Hatcher when he crossed the goal line from 1 yard away for the game-winning score.
Adams noted the offense and defense had to make crucial plays to earn the championship. And he didn’t want the player whose field goal made the difference in the final to be overlooked.
“We’re going to always try to establish the run, play great defense and win the special teams battle,” he noted. “It was an unbelievable State championship game with two like-minded teams that play the same style. Watching us go back and forth as two physical teams, you’ve got to play great defense and try to win the special teams battle.
“Credit to our senior kicker Evan Stookey for hitting a 40-yarder in his first year of playing high school football,” Adams continued. “I think he finished 8 for 9 on the year. We got him out of the hallways in late July. He’s been a tremendous asset for us.”
Adams started to build up those assets once he took over the job in the spring. His first challenge was creating a bond between coaches and the players.
“We took over the last week of April,” he recalled. “We were behind the eight ball. We talked about being a family. We break it down on ‘family.’ We had real conversations about being a family, holding each other accountable, laughing together and crying together.
“That team, we really bought into being a family late summer,” Adams added. “All the adversity hit us with injuries and two coaches going down late in the year during the playoffs with some sickness. All we’ve been through, we were a family.”
Adams noticed quickly his player adopted a mindset of “No big I’s and no little U’s.”
“We’ve got college football players all throughout our roster, and you won’t see kids tweeting out individual awards or offers,” he said. “That’s just not who we are. We’re going to get our kids the help they need to play at the next level if they want to, but when you’re an ECS Eagle, you’re a part of a family. None of those awards happen without each other. I’m just extremely proud of the seniors bringing along the juniors. The juniors bring along the sophomores and so forward.”
The bond strengthened even more on the night of Sept. 13. The eventual 2019 West 10 Media Power 10 champions, the Houston Mustangs, outlasted the Eagles 36-20.
“It hit the night of week 4,” Adams recalled. “Our only loss of the year, a tremendous Houston game. We got back to the campus after that and we had a couple of real unfortunate injuries in the first quarter.
“I was expecting to come back to a locker room of excuses, ‘Oh, we got hurt,’” he continued. “When I got in there, there was no excuse making. ‘Next man up, we’re a family.’ I told them that night, ‘We’re a dangerous team because you hate to lose more than you love winning.’ When you get a team that hates to lose more than they love winning, they did not want to feel that experience again.”
The Eagles’ work ethic increased and Adams saw more dedication from his players. The Houston defeat became the turning point for ECS toward a championship.
Along the march to Cookeville, the Eagles kept the one-game-at-a-time approach. Meanwhile, awards and honors kept racking up. The Eagles were the No. 1 ranked team in the state in Division II-AA.
A pair of Eagles, Austin Hill and Dietrick Pennington, were finalists for Division II-AA Mr. Football.
“They bought in, you sit there at the Mr. Football Banquet in Nashville,” Adams said. “We’ve got two of the three guys standing there on the stage. Austin wins it and they ask Austin about it. He says I couldn’t have done it without the family back home, and quite honestly Dietrick Pennington should have won it.
“You ask Dietrick, he thinks Austin should have won it and none of it would have been possible without the family back home,” he added. “When you’ve got that type of family atmosphere in the locker room and it’s genuine, because none of that was rehearsal. That’s an 18 year-old and 17-year-old being interviewed right there on the spot. Their answers matched up. They truly believe that. And you can’t win a gold ball with a bunch of individuals no matter how talented you are. I don’t know if we were the most talented team but I know we were a family throughout the whole entire season. It resulted in a gold ball.”
The most important trophy is now on the campus of ECS along with a banner recognizing the 2019 State champions along Macon Road. And the latest honor to be bestowed upon these Eagles is the Last Team Standing Award.
“We’re excited for our kids,” Adams concluded. “Everybody was a family. It was a tremendous honor to represent Memphis as the only team in Cookeville. There were a lot of great football teams. You’ve got to have the breaks and calls go your way. Hopefully you’re still standing at the end.”
THOMAS SELLERS edits The Millington Star and is sports editor for West 10 Media/Magic Valley Publishing. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.