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If Evangel University is looking for a song to fit its narrative, the Valor might want to consider the classic tune “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame group Journey.
“This team is resilient,” Evangel senior quarterback RJ Wakley said. “We believe we can win every game, no matter what the score is or how much time is left on the clock.”
Miracle comeback kept dream season alive
Consider last Saturday, when the Valor’s unbeaten season and first trip to the NAIA playoffs in 18 years was hanging by a thread. Trailing by 21 points in the fourth quarter against Bethel College in the regular-season finale, the dream was on the verge of ending.
But Evangel somehow manufactured a miraculous rally, scoring three touchdowns in the final 11 minutes — while also getting defensive stops — to send the game into overtime. Wakley’s fourth-down, six-yard pass to Dillon Hester with 31 seconds remaining tied the game, just four minutes after a 65-yard TD pass to Hester cut the deficit to seven.
After the teams matched touchdowns in the first OT, Jonah Edwards booted a 21-yard field goal before the Valor blocked a 27-yard field goal attempt to come away with a 41-38 victory. Evangel also blocked a potential game-winning Bethel field goal to conclude regulation.
There’s room for you on the Valor bandwagon
Evangel is 11-0 for the first time since 2001 and awaits its playoff assignment, as open-round games are played this Saturday. Coach Chuck Hepola said his team — with several Ozarks-area players in prominent roles — will be on the road Nov. 25 to see if it can keep the magical season going.
Hepola said if Springfield-area fans are looking for a local team to adopt, the Valor is eager to accept bandwagon jumpers.
“It would be a shame for people not to follow these guys for the rest of the season to see what happens because of the type of young men they are,” Hepola said. “If you want to pull for some good guys who are gonna work their butts off, these are the guys to follow.”
Some of the stars for the Valor, the Kessinger Division champion in its first season in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference, include Wakley of Tulsa, Oklahoma, at quarterback (2,616 yards and 27 touchdown passes), Strafford junior Hester at receiver (16 catches, 999 yards, 13 touchdowns), freshman receiver Broc Lyle of Rolla (47 receptons, six touchdowns) and sophomore running back Eric Williams from Irving, Texas (733 rushing yards, nine touchdowns).
On defense, junior linebacker Bradley Myers from Lee’s Summit leads the team with 139 tackles (including 11.5 for lost yardage). Senior Ian Ary of West Plains has 68 tackles and sophomore Brody Patterson of Mountain Home, Arkansas, has three interceptions.
Coach knew his team was going to be good, just maybe not 11-0 good
Hepola, a 1991 Evangel graduate with a 53-30 record in eight seasons as head coach, said he could tell an outstanding season was ahead by the way his team conducted itself during the offseason. But 11-0? That would be a stretch.
“In 30-some years of doing this, the one common denominator for good teams — and not-so-good teams — is unity or lack thereof,” Hepola said. “I could see how tight our coaches were, how tight our players were. Everybody plays for something bigger than themselves.
“I could never say that I saw 11-0 coming, but I knew that we were going to be very good. To be honest, when you go 11-0, you’re gonna have to have the ball bounce your way at certain times.”
Players credit culture Hepola has built
The players are quick to talk about the culture that Hepola and the coaching staff have built at the university, whose mission statement reads:
“Evangel University is a comprehensive Christian university committed to excellence in educating and equipping students to become Spirit-empowered servants of God who impact the Church and society globally.”
Hepola said being an Evangel graduate makes it all the more special to him because this season also is a way to honor those who have worn the uniform since the program began in 1977.
“We serve a God of excellence, so we’re striving to be like that as well,” Hepola said. “It makes me feel good that our kids get out there and work as hard as they can and we represent the Evangel community in a positive light.”
Myers said that this type of season has been coming.
“One of the awesome things, the culture has been building since we got here and me and RJ (Wakley) have been here five years now and we have seen it,” Myers said. “One thing that’s really cool about this group, you have some God-fearing men. People that are putting Christ at the forefront and people that after games are not putting glory for themselves.
“You don’t have just a couple of older guys on the team pushing each other. It’s everybody pushing everybody else. We always want to push ourselves to be better than we ever thought we could be. It starts in the spring lifting weights and it’s just rolled over into the season.”
‘We’re doing it for our brothers to our right and left’
Wakley said the one-for-all mentality is the biggest reason the Valor has been able to rally from seemingly impossible deficits the last couple of weeks.
It’s also why the team believes it can play deep into December and win an NAIA championship.
“Every time we go on the field, we’re doing it for our brothers to our right and left,” Wakley said. “We practice our two-minute drill every Wednesday. It’s No. 1 offense versus No. 1 defense. They’re trying to not allow big plays and not allow receivers to get out of bounds; we’re trying to do exactly that, make big plays and score fast.
“Coach ‘Hep’ always refers to when you get into tough situations, a quote from Navy Seals. You don’t rise to a certain level, you fall back to the level of your training. We train hard. We train very intentional on those details.
“It all starts in practice. They coach us hard. They yell at us. They’re on us all the time to try and raise us to that standard. Coach says we’re trying to be perfect. We’re never going to accomplish it, but if we don’t reach perfection we’ll settle for excellence. Excellence is our goal. They instill in us not just football standards, but life standards as well.”
Valor not changing its process for the playoffs
Wakley said fellow students and even faculty members have started to pay close attention to the football team, with terrific fan support in last Saturday’s home finale at Eagles Stadium in Nixa.
Questions are coming fast and furious about the next game, the confidence level of the team and how in the world the Valor was able to pull off the latest comeback.
“They are intrigued and curious to see how we are going to do,” Wakley said. “Our goal has been that championship all along. That’s what we’re striving for. It’s one day at a time, but you have to go and attack every day. That’s the same process we’ve had and it’s the same process that we’re taking into the playoffs.”
Evangel in the playoffs
The Evangel Valor is seeded ninth in the 20-team NAIA playoff field and will open play on the road on Nov. 25. Pairings will be made after this Saturday’s four opening-round games, which will pare the bracket to 16 teams. Coach Chuck Hepola said seeding and geography will both be factored into the pairings.
Top 12 seeds: 1. Northwestern, Iowa (11-0); 2. Grand View (10-0); 3. Keiser (8-2); 4. Georgetown, Kentucky (8-1); 5. Marian, Indiana (9-1); 6. Indiana Wesleyan (9-1); 7. Bethel, Tennessee (10-1); 8. Montana Western (9-1); 9. Evangel (11-0); 10. Morningside (9-2); 11. College of Idaho (8-2); 12. Saint Xavier (7-3)