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8-Man Football Catfight pits Springwood Wildcats against ECA Lions

Story by Griffin Pritchard | Publisher

Photos Courtesy of Springwood School & Ed Pugh | Valley Times-News

CENTRAL ALABAMA SCOREBOARD OFFICE – Eight-Man football is a rare beast in the gridiron-crazed state of Alabama. On Thursday though it will be on full display as the Alabama Independent School Association’s top two teams tangle for a state championship in front of friends and family on the Cramton Bowl turf.

“We set the goal of winning a championship in the summer,” said Joey Burch, coach of the Springwood Wildcats. “We worked hard each week preparing and improving. But we always kept ourselves focused on the end goal. We have played in some big games that I hope have helped us handle the pressure of a championship game. We have always been able to focus and prepare each week. So I don’t think that will be a problem. We are excited about the opportunity to represent Springwood and elevate the program.”

Elevating the program could have been the theme of the 2022 season for the Wildcats as they have taken on all challenges in and out-of-state, finishing the year with a 7-3 mark. Springwood dropped a 52-50 decision to Cornerstone Christian and then lost to Lighthouse Homeschool 36-30. They finished the year 1-1 against the state of Georgia, losing to Windsor Academy (36-12) to kickoff October, but followed that falter up with a 30-8 win on the road at New Creation.

Thursday’s championship showdown between the Wildcats and the Evangel Christian Academy Lions will be a rematch. Springwood knocked off Evangel Christian 52-32 on September 2. The 20-point Wildcats victory was sandwiched between beatdowns of Southern Prep (40-0) and Meadowview Christian (60-8). Springwood – in the win over Evangel Christian – rattled off 492 yards of offense with 465 of it coming on a combined 44 carries shared between Jonathan Johnson (221 yards and 3 touchdowns) and Cayden Cook (165 yards and 4 touchdowns).

Burch: “Evangel is a well-coached and athletic team. They have speed and size that will match-up with any team at the championship event. It will be a great challenge. But, that’s why it’s a championship game. I encourage people to come out early and see what 8-Man football is all about. I guarantee you will leave impressed with the level that will be played on Thursday.”

One of the hallmarks of 8-Man football is the high-scoring offense and throughout the season the Wildcats have lived up to that standard outscoring their opponents 416-217. But wait – there’s more.

Springwood – through 10 games (they were open the first and final weeks of the regular season) – has amassed over 3,300 yards of total offense, most of it coming from the ground (2,208 yards). They can throw the ball too, passing for just short of 1,200 yards.

Ben Cooper is the Wildcat guiding the air attack, throwing for 906 yards and 10 touchdowns. Johnson has doubled Cooper’s times in the end zone with 20 scores 1,060 yards running the football. But it’s not just offense, given the number of one-score games this season, the Wildcats can play a little defense. Cameron Sides comes in averaging around 9 tackles a game. Francesco Lim averages a little more than 8. Cook – coming into the championship game – has 8 sacks.

Burch: “The growth in leadership is one of the reasons I love this team. We started the summer with Ben Cooper, Trestin Garrett and Cayden Cook rallying the troops and being vocal leaders. As the season progressed injuries occurred, roles changed and we needed others to step up. One by one we had guys step up, not so much as vocal leaders but by their actions at practice and on the field. Jonathan Johnson became a leader by his physical running style. Dallas Pearson is the same. He doesn’t say much, but he worked his tail off and became a very good defensive back. Francesco Lim is always in the right position and a very physical tackler. Cameron Side and Anthony Keafer stepped up and provided solid leadership. These expectations have been filtered down to our underclassmen as several of them are now stepping up too. It’s been great to be a part of this culture change.”

The culture change that Burch references is a revival of sorts that brought a Region Championship back to Lanett for the first time in 21 years. Prior to this year’s championship, Springwood’s last championship was in 2001, before that 1998 and before that a string spanning from 1994-1996.

A win Thursday will be the school’s first since defeating Patrician 19-12 in 1985.

Evangel Christian plans to undo all of that though as they’ve never won a regional championship nor a state championship.

The 5-5 Lions knocked off Southern Prep in back-to-back weeks. They defeated the Rangers at home Halloween weekend 36-18 and then bounced them from the postseason Veteran’s Day weekend 40-12. The Lions are not without weapons. In the loss to Springwood earlier in the season, Isiah Gildersleeve threw for 208 yards and two scores on 13 completions. He also rushed for 37 yards and a score. Tobiyas McLemore ran for 57 and a score but reeled in five of Gildersleeve’s passes for 174 yards and two more. Daryl Mack also chipped in with a touchdown.

The 8-Man AISA State Championship Game kicks off at 10 a.m. and is the start of a day’s worth of championship football inside Cramton Bowl.

Following the Springwood vs. Evangel affair, the Class A Championship battle between Jackson and Lowndes kicks off at 1 p.m. Class AA (Clarke Prep vs. Patrician) follows at 4 p.m. and the Class AAA Championship (Glenwood vs. Lee-Scott) gets started around 7 p.m. to close out the night. 

Founder/Publisher of Central Alabama Scoreboard. Former sportsguy, and managing editor.

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