For a team that has largely run roughshod over its opponents this season, Tabernacle Christian had a much tougher go of it in the Christian Football Association playoffs, and Friday’s championship game was no exception.
“We just wanted to give you a better story,” assistant coach (and former head coach) Keith Dabbs joked.
Perhaps, but it took an onside-kick catch by Shiver Winchester with 52 seconds left in the game to for the Torches to finally secure a 44-36 victory at Tuscaloosa Christian, and win their second straight CFA 8-man championship.
Not that things started out that way. Tabernacle scored three touchdowns in the first nine minutes of the game, with the first two coming on the first play immediately after Warrior turnovers.
Justin Sims — or Judd Sims, depending on what he prefers to be called on a given night — put the Torches on the board right after the Warriors gambled and lost with a fake punt on fourth down. On the next play, Sims broke through the line and ran 46 yards for the touchdown.
On the next drive, Sims intercepted a Jordan Potter pass, and on the very next play Tristan Castro — named the CFA regular-season’s top offensive player — went on a 62-yard scoring dash.
Castro throttled the Warriors’ next drive when he picked off a Potter throw and set the Torches up on the Tuscaloosa 46. Three plays later he looked like he was headed for paydirt again, but was caught from behind at the 4-yard line after running 41 yards; Caleb Lindsey scored from two yards out.
The prospective rout came to a halt in the second quarter, as Tuscaloosa started to figure out the Torches’ offense, even as they struggled to get their own going. The Warriors were stopped on four plays after first and goal at the four.
Then late in the first half, Tuscaloosa took advantage of Lindsey’s only interception of the night, as Potter picked off his counterpart’s throw. Potter than connected with Boyd Banks to get down to the 20, and three plays later tossed to Andrew Mason, who broke a tackle and wriggled to the goal line. That cut the Tabernacle lead to 24-8 at halftime.
The Warriors took the opening drive of the second half down field in fairly short order, with Potter finishing off a 51-yard drive with a 1-yard sneak. But on the Torches’ next possession, they mounted the longest drive of the night, both in terms of yardage and number of plays.
A play-action pass from Sims to Winchester went for 23 yards and set the team up at the 8; two plays later Castro did the honors from the 4-yard line.
Tabernacle opened the fourth quarter up with a quick drive that ended with a 35-yard touchdown run by Sims, and the defending champs looked to have their second title well in hand with a 38-16 lead and 10:27 left on the clock.
The Warriors countered again with a 7-yard pass from Potter to Caleb Waddell, but on the first play after the following kickoff, Sims struck again with a 50-yard scoring dash.
Sims was named the most valuable player of the championship game.
Running back Freedom Woods had been the mainstay of Tuscaloosa’s ground game all night, and he did most of the work on their next possession which ended in a 3-yard pass from Andrew Mason with 5:05 left.
Tabernacle tried to burn off as much time as possible on the following drive, but turned the ball over on downs at the Warrior 31. Potter responded with three straight pass attempts that were dropped or fell short, and an illegal-shift penalty put them at third and 15 on their own 28 with 1:11 to play.
But that’s when Banks did a little bit of magic. He caught a Potter pass in the flat, then ran to the far side of the field and back to the near side, all the while dodging or breaking tackles. He ended up in the end zone after a 72-yard run that brought the Warriors to within a touchdown — but with just 52 seconds to go and no times out left.
The onside kick was obviously coming, and Winchester did his job by smothering the kick. The Torches ran out the clock from there.
Head coach Wayne Dabbs was breathing a sigh of relief at the end.
“Our main goal was to eliminate the big plays, and take advantage of their turnovers. But we gave them all the momentum going into halftime,” Wayne Dabbs said. “But this was a great game and we were playing a great team. It was a fun game to watch and play.”
In contrast to last year’s undefeated championship team, which rode along with highlight-video playmaker Fred Goodgame, this year’s squad was much more balanced and saw contributions from a wide range of players.
“We really had to rally together, offense and defense, to make this happen,” Wayne Dabbs said. “Last week against New Life [which the Torches won by two points] was a wake-up call. We played so many games where kids were only playing for a half because it was a blowout, and we had to play all four quarters last week and this.”
Castro finished with 176 yards on 20 carries, with most of that in the first half — he had 147 yards at intermission.
Tabernacle finishes with a 10-1 record, and 21-1 over the past two seasons.
The victory qualifies Tabernacle for the National Association of Christian Athletes championship tournament this week in Dayton, Tennessee. Tehir first game is Wednesday morning against Fountain Inn, S.C. Christian School, and their second game Friday afternoon is against the Carolina Panthers home-school team from Pickens, S.C.
Update at 3:53 p.m. Tuesday to correct MVP award and to add information about NACA playoffs.