By Bill Sorrell
FACS continues to bounce back from 2020 season
First Assembly Christian School’s football team scored 20 points the entire 2020 season while going 0-10. With the Crusaders’ 28-14 Division 2-A West Region victory over Fayette Academy on Thursday they secured a November playoff berth.
“We preach family and brotherhood. This group has come together so much. They love on each other and joke around. The seniors and the leadership they have brought it is hard to explain how much they have come together. It was a rough year last year. They were on a 12-game losing streak,” said head coach Mitch McDaniel, who is in his first year at FACS after being an assistant coach at Bartlett.
“In years past they have struggled here. It’s a new coaching staff coming in and change is hard and they have come in and bought into what we are trying to do. I tell them all the time and I have not lied to them yet and I never will; if they do what we ask them to do we have got a pretty good ball club.”
This is the third coaching staff the Crusaders have had in three seasons.
“For them to give us a chance as a staff and rally these young guys around them has been huge for us,” said McDaniel of senior leadership, which he calls a strength.
The Crusaders (4-3, 2-1 in region) have 13 seniors on their roster. Fayette Academy has six seniors.
“We are very young and at times we are very thin. Their roster size is about the same as ours but the difference is they have twice as many seniors as we do and we probably have twice as many freshmen. One of our six seniors was out so we had five. When you are dealing with a team that is young you go through some of that,” said Michael Hodum, Fayette Academy head coach who is in his second year at Fayette and 20th overall as a head coach.
Fayette Academy senior running back/defensive back Conner Fleming, who gained 80 of the Vikings’ 159 rushing yards and scored on a 71-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that led to a 14-14 tie, said that people do not know how young the team is.
“In the past Fayette Academy has had 14-plus seniors. In the past two years we have been down to six. I am real proud of us, of how we are and how we work. It’s hard keeping everybody’s head up. There are a bunch of guys who have not been in these situations before. We have got to make sure the whole team gets their heads up and work as a unit to get through it,” said Fleming.
Fleming gets through.
“Conner carries the rock for us. He is the guy we try to get the ball in his hands as much as we can. He does a great job of putting the team on his back. He committed to a hard workout this summer. He worked his butt off. That is why of all the people that were tired tonight he was not tired,” said Hodum.
The Crusaders relied on their run game. They rushed for 292 yards with junior Jake Pennington rushing for a game-high 149 yards on 25 carries.
“I am really proud of our line tonight. I got past the line of scrimmage. They were doing their job blocking. We haven’t had this good of a line in a long time and I think that is our success. Once the ball is snapped it’s up to them first so we can get the ball out to our playmakers to make plays,” said Pennington.
McDaniel said that the Crusaders dominated the line of scrimmage.
“I feel like we ran the football well. We preached it. Running down hill and getting those tough three or four yards. I was proud of Jake Pennington but the fight and the grit of this team is starting to understand as we are getting towards the finish line. We are going to run him (Pennington). I told him that we are going to have to be able to run it up front and dominate up front and open us up for everything else,” said McDaniel, whose team runs a spread offense and tries to run it first.
FACS senior wide receiver/defensive back Colton Inman, who transferred from Houston High School and was cleared to play in March after a shoulder injury caused him to miss the Mustangs’ season in 2020, called the Crusaders’ victory “a great team win all around. It was a great effort everywhere. We came out at half a little slower than we expected but we put the pieces together and got right back on track. We kept our heads up. We knew they are a good football team and we knew that we would have to keep our heads together and play as a team. That is the most important part. We played as a team and had our brothers’ back.
“We have several dogs on our team. We have great athletes, some that were slept on going into the beginning of this year and everybody is preying on our downfall. That is our strength. I think it fires us up. We came out here and won as a team. It makes it that much sweeter.
“Jake Pennington is a hard-nosed running back, probably one of our best ball carriers. Corey Savage has great visuals in the air balls. Tyler Kamler is a great outside threat. Ghakobe Moore on the D-line, he’s a dog. We put all these dogs together and play as one this is what happens, you come out on top. There is no “I” in team,” said Inman.
With a bye week the week before, McDaniel said that during practice “we preached trying to be physical and nasty and this is really the first true football game I thought we played from start to finish. We have got some fight in us. We have struggled with a team hitting us in the mouth and us laying down.”
Fayette Academy quarterback Eason Wells, a junior, said the Vikings can “stay with anybody if we can try our hardest. We learned that last week with USJ (University School of Jackson, a 49-0 loss). We can play a lot better than people think we can. We did not expect to go down at all (against FACS).
Hodum said the Vikings (1-6, 1-3) gave effort.
“Some of it was about mistakes. I don’t think any of it was about effort. I think the kids really gave effort. There were times when we made mistakes that young kids make, some bad angles and those kind of things come back to bite you and hopefully the kids grow up and learn from that. Last week we played USJ and we lost our cornerback. Our best lineman (Logan Land) has been out for three weeks and he’s struggled. He was our starting center. We came off some COVID stuff from last week. We had a lot going and we are already thin. Sometimes that can make it tough,” said Hodum.
“Our kids fought all the way to the end. We were down and we came back the second half. I thought we had a good third quarter. We have some very young guys up front. Even though we were out-sized a lot, I thought they got off the ball well and gave us some good rushing yards, to be out-weighed 60 to 70 pounds a man all away across the board.
“One of the things we have got to grow up and know where we are supposed to be. Mistakes, it’s execution. We have to improve on our execution a little bit particularly with younger guys. I think our older guys understand what they are doing and where they are supposed to be but when you are playing that many young guys you are going to be out of position at times. Sometimes tonight that hurt us.”
Despite the losses, Hodum has been encouraged at the family-type atmosphere the Vikings have shown.
“They stick together because it has been a tough season. I think the adversity that they have overcome makes them still come out here every Friday night and fight and I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the way the kids come in to practice every day to get better.”
Following Fleming in rushing yardage senior running back Caleb Boswell gained 75 yards on 14 carries for the Vikings. Wells completed 4 of 7 passes for 38 yards and freshman quarterback Corbin Bowling completed 2 of 7 passes for 45 yards.
For FACS, sophomore wide receiver/defensive back Brian Shields rushed for 84 yards on 2 carries including a 79-yard touchdown run. Josh Wright, sophomore quarterback. gained 20 yards on 8 carries and scored an 8-yard touchdown. Senior running back/defensive back David Calderon rushed for 39 yards including a 13-yard touchdown.
Wright completed 6 of 9 passes for 80 yards. Calderon had one reception for 25 yards, Corey Savage 3 for 38 yards and Shields 2 for 17 yards.
FACS had 372 yards total offense, Fayette Academy 242.
The Crusaders scored with 5:23 left in the first quarter when Shields ran 79 yards for the touchdown after the Crusaders started on their 1-yard line.
David Baker kicked the extra point.
The Vikings scored on the next series. Runs by Boswell got first downs before he ran to the Crusaders 7-yard line. Boswell scored the touchdown but Zane Pike’s extra point attempt was blocked and FACS led 7-6 with 10 seconds left in the first quarter.
Runs by Pennington and Wright got first downs for the Crusaders in their next scoring drive. Pennington ran to the 18 and then to the 13 before Calderon ran 13 yards for a touchdown with 14 seconds left in the second quarter. Baker’s PAT made the halftime score 14-6.
In the third quarter Pennington ran for a first down at the Fayette 41 and then again at the 29. Later facing fourth down and 10 at the Fayette 29-yard line Wright threw an incomplete pass.
Taking over a their own 29-yard line, Fleming ran 71 yards for a touchdown with 10 seconds left in the third quarter. A 2-point conversion from Wells to Boswell tied the game at 14-14.
The Crusaders scored after a 75-yard drive. Pennington and Calderon teamed to get the Crusaders first downs to the Fayette 9 yard line. Wright scored from the 8 and the Crusaders led 21-14 after Baker’s extra point with 7:11 left in the game.
Savage finished the Crusaders scoring when he caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from Wright with 3:26 left. Baker kicked it to 28-14.
The Crusaders put an exclamation point on the win when Inman sacked Bowling on the Fayette Academy 28-yard line. The Crusaders ran out the clock on the Vikings 25-yard line.
“Hats off to them. Their kids played great. They have a small roster also,” said Hodum.
“We felt like when it was 14-14 early in the fourth our kids were tired. I thought when they scored that touchdown (21-14) it took a lot of air out of us. They rolled pretty good.”
Hodum said that Fleming is the team leader.
“He is a guy that has outworked everybody on our team. He shows up every day and does what he is supposed to do. That is why he made the big play on the long run.”
Fleming said, “I am real proud of my line. On that play (when he scored), they all did their job and what they were supposed to do.
“Because of that I was able to get down in the end zone like I’m supposed to. I really want to thank Paxton Graves (fullback/linebacker) for stepping up on that play and getting the block he had to get in order to make that happen.”
McDaniel said that the Crusaders continued to lean on their run game after the Vikings tied it up. McDaniel challenge his team to respond.
“Jake Pennington getting those hard yards,” said McDaniel also pleased with the play of Savage and Calderon.
McDaniel called Shields, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, the Crusaders’ “most dynamic player.”
“He is a basketball player. When he is on the edge, he can go. Luke Moore is our senior leader up front on the offensive line. He is 6-3, 280,” said McDaniel, whose offensive line starts Alex Flaherty (center), Moore (right tackle), Raymond Robinson, Jr. (right tackle), Andrew Rogers (left guard), Skyler Billings (left tackle).
Defensively the Crusaders start Aaron Johnson at nose guard, Kayden Hartunian (tackle), Ghakobe Moore (tackle).
Ethan Browder led the Crusaders with 11 tackles. Inman had 8 tackles, 1 assist along with his sack, Tyler Kamler made 6 tackles, Savage had 2 tackles and an interception. Connell Fitzgerald made 8 tackles, Ghakobe Moore 6 tackles and 1 sack.
The Vikings offensive line starters are Zach Wells (center), Graves ( also noseguard) and Seth Pulliam (guard), Matthew Edwards and Will Sparks (tackles). Land is the Vikings’ leading tackler.
“He does a great job running to the football. He is our leader on defense. He is one of our seniors,” said Hodum, whose team runs a Wing-T offense and 3-4 defense.
An impact defensive player for the Vikings against FACS was Konner Maines said Hodum.
“He made some big plays on defense on the stops and he has not played all year. This was his first game he has played this year. He tore his ACL last year. We look forward to him getting a little bit better. I’m proud of our quarterback (Wells). He had an injury tonight and we will have to asses that and see what happens,” said Hodum.
Bowling played much of the second half.
“He had not had any experience this year. He turned it around a little bit. I want to congratulate him for stepping up like that,” said Wells. “He did good.”
Boswell led Fayette receivers with 42 yards, Jake Grant 15 receiving yards, Land 13, Bo Culver 10. Defensively, Land led the Vikings with 7 tackles, Wyatt Morris, Culver and Boswell each made 4 tackles. Jake Grant, Graves, Edwards each made 3. Dawson Bryan, Eason Wells and Russell Wilson each made 2 tackles.
Culver had a fumble recovery. Grant averaged 34 yards on 4 punts. Jonathan Brady returned two kicks for 23 yards, Fleming one for 15, Morris one for 15.
Pennington said that seniors fired up the Crusaders during halftime.
“We picked it up in the second half and got punching. We tried to throw the ball but it was not working out so we kept running and running and getting yards.
“When our defense started stopping the ball that was a turning point. We gave up a couple of outside runs. Our defense kept pounding and pounding. Our defense stopped the ball really well. I think the first quarter was a great job of stopping the run game. Josh Wright made really good decisions at quarterback. Corey Savage is in his first year playing in high school. He played in junior high. I am really proud of him. He has been working. Other players on the line have not started before and they were asked to do a bunch of things and they just kept working and working.
“Running the ball seems to be working, doing a great job of finishing out blocks and getting those yards,” said Pennington, adding it was a well-fought game.“It was a war. We haven’t had that close of a game. We have had blowouts and have had blowouts ourselves.”
McDaniel wants his team to get better at taking care of the football as he tries to get younger players more reps. There were 4 starters back on offense from last year’s team and 3 on defense.
“It is about building depth in numbers,” said McDaniel. “We have to make it simple for these guys to play and that gives us a chance to win.”
Inman said, “We have a strong team. Sometimes we tend to get our heads a little lower than they should. It’s about picking it up and winning as a collective team. We stuck together and had each other’s backs and won as a team. We are close. We hang out outside of school. We are one. I think a lot of football teams lack that glue that holds everybody together.”
McDaniel said, “A lot of people don’t understand how special this place is. First and foremost we concentrate on praising the Lord. He is our Number 1.”
Said Inman, “I love this school. This is my home.”
Pennington said that McDaniel “really cares about us and wants us to succeed. He tells us that he is doing it for us and how we should do it for each other.”
After the game Hodum told his team, “I love you when you win. I love you when you lose.”
Fleming was proud of his team after the game.
“They all worked hard all the way to the end. A bunch of young guys working hard and playing hard both ways. I am proud of them,” he said. “I want to be able to finish out the best we can, trying to have as little regrets as possible at the end of the season.”
Wells echoed Fleming.
“We want to go out with a bang and try to do the best we can for the rest of the two games and try our hardest,” said Wells.
The Crusaders have reached the playoffs. One factor was a forfeit by Harding Academy due to COVID which counted as a region win.
Pennington said the Crusaders approach to a simpler game plan is working and “we are going to keep doing it until the playoffs. In the playoffs we have to win games.”