Avila football makes history
By Max Goodwin
The Avila Eagles football team is conference champions for the first time in school history, sharing the title with Bethel (Kan.) as co-champions of the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.
The achievement is especially sweet for an Avila program turned around from never having had a winning season before head coach Marc Benavidez took over in 2018 to having nothing but winning seasons in the three years since. If anybody was motivated to put Avila football back on the right track it was Benevidez who played defensive back for the team from 2008 to 2012.
“It’s definitely a prideful moment,” Benavidez said. “but even more so knowing how these guys have pushed through these last nine, ten months and stayed focused on football has been huge.”
Everything about this season was unprecedented for the Avila football program. They began the season with a roster filled with injuries. And then the length of time this season was stretched out over, with a four-month pause from November to March due to a decision made by the NAIA for Covid related precautions.
That’s why Avila is just now celebrating its first football conference championship in April, it’s been a discombobulated season. But Benavidez’ team remained focused despite the break. When they returned together as a team, with a 6-1 record at the time, Benavidez said their feet hit the ground running.
“It helped us as coaches to reinforce the fact that if we win out we’ve got a chance at the playoffs, we have a chance at a conference championship,” Benevidez said.
The only loss in Avila’s 8-1 season came all the way back in September, in the first game of the season against Bethel. While the two teams are named co-conference champions of the KCAC, Bethel received the automatic bid into the NAIA Football Championship Series for beating Avila in the season-opening matchup.
The NAIA Football Championship Series consists of 12 conference champion teams and four teams chosen for at-large bids by an NAIA selection committee. Despite Bethel taking the KCAC’s conference champion spot, Avila appeared in contention for one of the remaining four at-large bids. The Eagles had won eight straight games and beaten two teams in the NAIA top-25 coaches poll, more than any team that appeared to be in contention for the postseason.
What stood out to Benavidez about the four teams that were selected rather than Avila is that their losses were to teams ranked in the top-10 on the NAIA coaches poll.
“You can definitely tell the mindset of the selection committee was that a loss to a top-10 was more important than a win against the top-25,” Benevidez said.
One of the team’s that was selected ahead of the Eagles was Dordt (Iowa) which with a record of 8-2 had more losses than Avila. But those two losses came to top-ranked Morningside and sixth-ranked Northwestern.
Even without a postseason appearance it was still a season that ends with a symbol of just how much things have changed for the Avila football program since the days when Benevidez lined up in the Eagles secondary and took the field at the Z. Avila averaged 3.5 wins per season while Benevidez was a student-athlete. In 2016-17, two years before Benevidez became head coach Avila stumbled through a winless season with 11 losses.
All that has come to this, three seasons with a combined record of 22-7. A 8-1 season that ended just on the edge of playoff contention and a first in school history football conference championship banner to be hung in Mabee Fieldhouse on Avila’s campus.
“That’s the plan,” Benevidez said. “It’s an exciting time for us.”
Expect the exciting times to continue for Avila football as Benevidez is already focused on next season and says there is another impressive class of recruits headed for Avila.
“We’ve already signed a bunch of talented guys that we’re excited for,” Benevidez said the same night he found out his team had not made the postseason, about an hour after his team’s season had officially ended. “We’re going to meet as a staff at 9 a.m. tomorrow and talk about what we’ve got to accomplish in the next couple months and recruiting is going to be a big part of it. That’s what turned the table in the few years for us to win games.”