Matched up against the Freedom Cowboys, Southern Prep’s football team thought it might be in for a rough night Monday evening at the National High School Association of 8-Man Football’s Division II National Championship in Panama City, Florida.
The Fighting Rangers had never defeated Freedom in their program history and were just coming off a tough loss against Evangel, 36-0, that dropped them down to the Division II bracket. But they stormed back and earned a 30-18 victory to win the title.
“We had never even come close to beating them,” Southern Prep coach Roland Bell said. “But we gave our boys a speech about believing in ourselves and reminding them that we were invited for a reason.”
The NHSA 8-man national championship is by division only and Southern Prep came in ranked No. 14. But it started the tournament with a big win over Providence Home School out of Columbia, South Carolina, which had previously been beaten just once and was ranked No. 5 going into the tournament. Evangel was the top seed and eventually went on to win the Division I tournament, so the Fighting Rangers just had to pep themselves back up after that loss.
They did just that and showed a fighting mentality.
Southern Prep led 8-6 for the most of the first half before Freedom came back and scored two touchdowns back-to-back to end the half and take the lead.
“We hit them really hard at halftime with the message of, ‘Just believe,’” Bell said. “We had to go back to what we had told them to do and we came out in the third quarter and stopped them. Then we went all the way down the field and all of a sudden, it’s 18-14. Two touchdowns later, we had Freedom all upset.”
That was Southern Prep’s game plan all along. Bell knew Freedom was going to run the ball a lot. He compared the Cowboys to the old Alabama teams.
“They say, ‘We’re going to run it right at you and there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Bell said. “But if you remember back in the day, if those Alabama teams ever got behind, they were in a little bit of trouble.”
Knowing that, Southern Prep designed a defense to shut down Freedom’s run game and it put a ton of pressure on the Cowboys’ quarterback. Tristen Ellis led the Ranger defense with seven tackles, including five sacks and Parker Slaughter also added five sacks. Yogi Barker, who was once again a force on both sides, racked up four solo tackles and two assists to go along with a forced fumble.
Evan Cole had four tackles and Malachi Roberts followed right behind with three and added a forced fumble. Ny Dowdell picked off a pass and Talib Diallo and Braxton Cook each contributed a tackle.
“What we were doing with the defense against them, we were calling it chaos,” Bell said. “Basically we were trying to box them in and close everything down so they were forced to run outside or pass the ball. We were going to make them get out of their comfort zone and that’s when we could take over.”
Offensively, Barker was the leader of the pack, rushing for 149 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just 11 carries. Quarterback Justin Wallace went 7 of 10 passing for 79 yards and a touchdown. Diallo led the receivers with six receptions for 32 yards; Dowdell’s only catch was a 47-yard touchdown.
Southern Prep is graduating only five seniors and just three from the starting line. Although guys like Daniel Tampa, Diallo and Wallace will be tough to replace, Bell is hopeful the success this season as well as playing on such a big stage will help Southern Prep recruit even more players for next season.
“We’ve had five or six others contact us and they’re playing at their local schools,” Bell said. “We haven’t gone to them but they’ve come to us and said they want to play for us.”