While the Christ Presbyterian Academy Lions only won four games this season, they made each of those wins count.
The Lions (4-6, 4-0 DII-AA Middle) clinched their third straight district title with a 35-21 road victory over Franklin Road Academy (7-3, 2-2) on Friday night to close out the regular season.
The defending state champions got off to a rocky start this season, going 0-4 and finishing winless against a tough slate of non-district opponents. But those early season tests paid off once district play got underway.
CPA went unbeaten in district play and secured home-field advantage to start the postseason. Now the Lions will host Knoxville Webb in the first round of the DII-AA state playoffs on Friday, Nov. 8.
“The biggest thing for us is that we now get to control our own destiny at home, and the possibility of potentially hosting three playoff games at home is really exciting,” CPA Head Coach Ingle Martin said.
“We’re extremely proud of our team. Not many people can go through the adversity and criticism of what our record is, but we knew what kind of team we had and our boys give it everything they have every game.”
With CPA and FRA each playing for the district title, it was the Lions who established their dominance in the run game early and often. Seven rushers combined for 269 rushing yards for CPA, and three different rushers—including quarterback Cade Law—found the end zone through the ground.
Law finished as the Lions’ leading rusher, with 84 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. He also did some damage with his arm with two fourth quarter touchdown passes and 167 passing yards, completing 7 of his 10 pass attempts.
“The run game has been huge for us, and we’ve got some big guys up front who have led us to these four regional wins,” Martin added. “And when you run the ball well, you have to be able to make some passing plays and that was the difference tonight.”
The Lions setting the tone and finding the end zone less than a minute into the game. Junior running back returned the opening kickoff all the way to the Panthers’ 21-yard line to set up a 6-yard rushing touchdown by running back Langston Patterson to give the Lions an early lead.
CPA bookended the first quarter with another rushing touchdown, this time with running back Andrew Whitely cutting to the outside and sprinting into the end zone for a 15-yard rushing touchdown, giving the Lions a 14-0 lead after one quarter of play.
The Panthers struck back in the second quarter with some trickery. After quarterback Sean Casey handed the ball off to wide receiver Kingston Gardner on a jet sweep, he stopped near the line of scrimmage and pulled back for a deep pass, which landed in the hands of receiver Sam Taylor for a 43-yard passing touchdown.
Gardner was one of FRA’s key playmakers throughout the night, wrangling nine receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown.
But Law quickly responded for CPA, engineering another scoring drive for the Lions and capping it off with a 6-yard rushing touchdown to put the visitors back ahead by two scores, and they took that 21-7 into the half.
Late in the third quarter, the Panthers had several opportunities to get back in the game—but failed to turn those opportunities into scores. On fourth and one from the CPA 15-yard line, the Lions defense stuffed FRA quarterback Sean Casey at the line of scrimmage to force a turnover on downs with 1:45 left in the third quarter.
“That stung,” FRA Head Coach Bill Whittemore said. “We had some momentum coming out into the second half, but we missed those chances and we have to get better in those situations.”
The Panthers quickly got another chance after Law fumbled the ball seconds later to give FRA the ball back at the Lions’ 31-yard line with 0:51 left in the third quarter. But, again, the Panthers squandered the opportunity when kicker Jack Norris missed a 38-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter to keep FRA behind by 14 points.
Up until the fourth quarter, Law had done most of his damage with his feet. Now he was ready to use his arm. He threw a deep ball that connected with wide receiver Maverick Rodriguez for a 72-yard passing touchdown to give the Lions their largest lead of the game at 28-7 with 8:43 left in the game.
After FRA responded on the next drive with a touchdown pass of their own—Casey to Gardner for a 23-yard score—Law went deep again, this time finding wide receiver Sam Ellis for a 49-yard touchdown reception, his first of the season.
FRA running back Jeffrey Vercher, who finished the game with 83 rushing yards on 14 carries, scored his first and only rushing touchdown of the night with 2:21 remaining, but it was too little too late for the Panthers.
“It’s a tough loss. We knew we were in a battle and needed to play a perfect game,” Whittemore said. “We had a chance to leave our mark, but we showed ourselves that we can compete and, hopefully, we can take some of that confidence with us into the playoffs.”
The Panthers, who finish as the district runner-ups, will host Northpoint Christian on Friday, Nov. 8, in the first round of the playoffs.