HUNTERSVILLE – This was what SouthLake Christian’s football team waited – and worked toward – for a year.
The Eagles, in a sweet reversal of fortune, beat Victory Christian 7-0 to win the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association Division III championship Nov. 15. It was the first football title in SouthLake history and avenged last season’s five-point loss to Victory Christian in the state final.
SouthLake players and fans were oblivious to the cold rain as they danced, hugged and took turns posing for photographs with the championship trophy.
“It was a great week of practice, probably the best week we had all year,” SouthLake linebacker Zack Dudan said. “We all knew it was going to be a dogfight and a great game. The score was 7-0, what else could you want? It’s an amazing feeling.”
The Eagles finished 11-1. Victory Christian was 7-5.
SouthLake’s shutout performance included interceptions by Kahlil Robinson and Aapri Washington and fumble recoveries by Jack Fording, Jalen Nash and Dudan. In between, they clogged running lanes and had ample pursuit on plays toward the sideline. Nash and Grant Bushinski manned the outside, and Ellis Krupa and Dudan provided inside strength.
“Our defense doesn’t get a lot of credit for what it’s done the last three or four years,” SouthLake coach Bub O’Donnell said. “Coach (Randy) Stegal, when he came over, brought intensity and a scheme. He’s got such a good feel for the game after doing it for 20 years. He can see what’s coming at (defenders) and make adjustments.
“This was a war of wills. (Victory Christian) was tenacious and it’s a reflection of their leadership. (Coach) Dee Brown deserves all the credit. We just decided that we were not going to lose it on offense.”
SouthLake had to deal with the loss of starting quarterback Luke Lancaster, who violated a school policy on game day and sat out the game. He was replaced by Riley Zayicek, who was 3-of-9 passing for 46 yards. The Eagles mostly relied on sophomore running back Robert Washington Jr., who carried 31 times for 98 yards and the game’s lone touchdown.
“Give Riley credit,” O’Donnell said. “I told him we weren’t going to throw it around the park like we normally do. We told him to be smart with the ball and make good decisions. I thought he did a great job managing the game. We didn’t get cute. We didn’t get fancy. We decided we were going to let the defense do their thing.”
The game was a defensive battle throughout. After a scoreless first half, SouthLake’s defense forced turnovers on Victory Christian’s first two possessions in the third quarter. The first was a fumble that SouthLake’s Dudan recovered at the Victory Christian 29-yard line. Two plays later, Robert Washington Jr. burst up the middle for a 22-yard touchdown run. Jeremy Silinski’s extra point gave the Eagles a 7-0 lead.
There was no more scoring, but the second half didn’t lack excitement. On Victory Christian’s next possession, the Kings drove to the SouthLake 21. But the Eagles forced a fumble that Nash recovered. Twice Victory Christian drove inside SouthLake’s 10, only to have the Eagles defense thwart them.
“We just tightened up and they didn’t score,” Dudan said. “Our student section kept getting louder and louder. We’re all bruised up and everything, but we stuck together.”
One of the game’s best defensive plays came from an offensive player. SouthLake was driving midway through the second quarter when Victory Christian’s Corbin Jackson intercepted a pass at his 1 and took off down the sideline. He looked like he’d score, but SouthLake’s Robert Washington Jr. chased him down 88 yards later at the SouthLake 11. Victory Christian advanced to the six-yard line, but SouthLake’s defense stopped two running plays and forced two incompletions to take over at its seven-yard line and preserve the shutout.