By ADAM HUNSUCKER, Special to the Journal
MONROE — When it comes to gridiron gold, few in Louisiana prep football can match the Evangel Christian Eagles and Neville Tigers.
These programs, boasting a combined 26 state championships, kicked off the 2023 season inside the venue Evangel head coach Denny Duron called, “the Death Valley of high school football.” If Duron didn’t realize how prescient his words were at kickoff, he did in the game’s aftermath.
An overtime comeback bid fell one yard short for Evangel (0-1) in a 30-29 loss to Neville (1-0) on Thursday night at Bill Ruple Stadium. Short-yardage specialist Gabriel Reliford was stopped just outside the goal line on the final play.
Reliford, a junior pass rusher committed to Texas A&M, pleaded with Duron to put the game in his hands.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I can do this,’” Duron said. “He convinced me, and I can tell you I’d give it to him again. The coaches came to me and said we had to go for two because guys were going out left and right with cramps. At that point, it becomes a corporate decision and that’s the way we coach. We coach together and we felt great about it.”
The quarterback-wide receiver duo of Peyton and Parker Fulghum kept Evangel afloat even when the outcome was bleak. Peyton Fulghum completed 24-of-36 attempts for 311 yards and four touchdowns. Parker Fulghum caught three of those scores and totaled 229 yards on 14 receptions.
Junior running back Jaylon Nichols ran one yard for Neville’s go-ahead score in OT. Seniors John Michael Sampognaro and Aman Fuller split time at quarterback for the Tigers. Fuller had the better night statistically, finishing 8-of-16 for 69 yards and a touchdown pass to junior Trendan Dumas.
All seemed lost for Evangel when a three-point halftime lead evaporated into a two-score deficit late in the third quarter. Neville capped an 8-play, 72 yards with a Nichols touchdown. It only got worse for Evangel on the next drive.
Senior defensive back Tytron Hanley returned a Peyton Fulghum interception 78 yards for a 23-9 lead.
“We told our guys all week this game was going to go up and down,” Neville head coach Jeff Tannehill said. “They have a great quarterback and big-play receivers, and it showed tonight. I’m just proud of the way our guys played through their mistakes and handled themselves for the entire game.”
The Fulghum brothers helped Evangel force overtime in a frantic fourth quarter, connecting for two touchdowns that tied the game. While special-teams miscues cost the Eagles a first-quarter extra point and field position on a bad snap in the fourth quarter, Reliford blocked a field goal with 6:37 left to keep the comeback alive.
“Parker Fulghum is the best receiver in this state and Peyton is a fighter,” Duron said. “They were both just phenomenal tonight. What you saw from our kids tonight is what they are every single day.
“We didn’t lose this game tonight — they won it. They’re the Neville Tigers and they’re awesome.”
Evangel led 9-3 at halftime on the strength of a 4th-and-goal stand. With the Eagles backed up on their 6-yard line, junior Jacob Wilson broke up Fuller’s pass to the end zone.
Peyton Fulghum connected with Parker Fulghum for the only touchdown in the first half. Parker Fulghum muscled the pass away from a Neville defender to cap a penalty-filled drive with 7:43 left in the second quarter. Both teams were flagged a combined four times on consecutive plays.
Junior Kaegen Kent booted a 31-yard field goal to give the Eagles a 3-0 at the 4:40 mark of the first quarter. Neville answered with a 43-yard kick from senior Jake Deal on the next drive to tie the game.
Evangel held Neville to 122 yards in the first half, the bulk of which came on a 47-yard run from senior J’chione White. Peyton Fulgum was 12-of-18 for 94 yards and the lone touchdown through two quarters.
The Eagles host Mansfield next Friday night in the home opener at Rodney Duron Field.