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Record Eight Interceptions Boost Evangel Football to Shutout Victory

Record Eight Interceptions Boost Evangel Football to Shutout Victory

By Mike Bennett

It was readily apparent that Evangel University needed to tighten its defense – primarily against the pass – coming into Saturday night's game. 

The Valor did that and a lot more. They simply put a vice-grip on Culver-Stockton's offense for a 26-0 shutout victory at Eagle Stadium in Nixa.

How good was the defense as Evangel rose to 2-1?

– The Valor made eight interceptions and forced a goal-line fumble. 

– They blocked a punt and scored a safety after a muffed punt return.

–  They held the Wildcats to just 41 yards passing. That's 308 less than opponents averaged against them in the first two games. C-S (1-2) ran for 123 yards. 

Evangel scored its only offensive touchdowns on a long pass and one long drive. 

Athanie Leeviraphan made three of the interceptions (a personal record), including one that he returned 26 yards for a touchdown with 2:41 left in the game. He also stuffed a fourth-down run to stop a deep Wildcats' drive in the first half and totaled six tackles.

Tyler White also pulled down three interceptions, while Ian Ary and Kolyn Elia had one apiece.

"We were in the mindset that we were going to stop everything (runs and passes)," Leeviraphan said. "Everything was clicking."

Evangel's players knew the 46-35 loss at Graceland was an aberration. "We needed this," Leeviraphan said. "Last week left a bad feeling. We are back up to our standard. We have to stay there all season."

Coach Chuck Hepola said the win was a big one: "A shutout any night is special," he said. "Our kids got the right mindset tonight. It was huge to bounce back. I was proud of our resilience." 

Wide receiver Michael Murray caught a pair of touchdowns – one each from quarterbacks Hayden Conrad and RJ Wakley – to provide Evangel's spark on offense.

Murray totaled 108 yards on six pass receptions, while Sammy Robinson ran 100 yards on 25 carries. The two essentially carried Evangel on an 86-yard drive that put Evangel up 14-0 with 6:29 left in the third quarter. 

Robinson ran for 35 yards on the drive, including three for first downs.

Evangel struck first on a perfect 58-yard TD connection between Hayden and Murray with 11:30 left in the second quarter. Murray was streaking left as he caught the ball behind a defender and cruised untouched into the end zone.

Murray's second TD catch from 14 yards culminated a game-best drive that featured five first downs. Murray also grabbed a 15-yard first-down pass on that 10-play drive.

Jonah Edwards kicked a 42-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and converted on all three extra points. 

Ryan Conner's 56-yard punt resulted in a muff and a safety with 53.8 left in the third for a 16-0 lead. He had another punt over 50 yards, and his kicks pinned the Wildcats within the 20 on five occasions.

The game was tight and sluggish in the first half, with both teams missing on excellent scoring opportunities with fumbles near the end zone. 

"The guys were kind of anxious," Hepola said. "They settled down and played well." 

Bradley Myers led the Valor with six solo tackles and 11 total, while Ary had four solos and seven total.

The Valor blocked a punt and had only 14 yards to cover for a lead in the first quarter, but a fumble at the 1-yard line was returned 73 yards by Jeremiah Ferger for Culver-Stockton. Leeviraphan made a tackle for loss on fourth down at the EU 17 to end that scoring attempt.

CSC returned the favor late in the second quarter, fumbling on the Evangel 2 to thwart its deepest drive of the game.

Evangel returns to action next Saturday with a game against Heart of America opponent William Penn in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.

The Valor will be in for another challenge Hepola said: "Everybody in the conference is good. We need to come back with the same attitude, the same mindset as we had tonight."

The win was an extra sweet victory sponsored by Saint George's Donuts for every Evangel win over a nationally ranked opponent. Culver-Stockton was ranked No. 22 before Saturday's game.