By Max Goodwin
For the second time in three seasons, Avila football has a share of a KCAC conference championship.
Avila beat Friends University, 42-26, on Saturday to end the regular season and officially be named conference champions and for the first time in school history the Eagles will be playing in the NAIA tournament with a chance at the NAIA National Championship.
Avila will know who its first round matchup of the NAIA tournament will be by Sunday evening as the NAIA releases the results on its selection show. For Avila, the appearance in the postseason tournament marks stunning turnaround for the program in recent years.
In 2016, Avila won zero games. In 2017, Avila was 3-7. In 2018, the first season with Marc Benevidez as head coach, Avila flipped that record and went 7-3. They went 7-3 the next season as well. In 2020, Avila took a share of the conference title and went 8-1. Last season was the only step back to 7-3.
Now, this season is already the best in school history as the Eagles currently sit at 10-1, the most wins in school history and with the postseason remaining. The current Avila senior class is the winningest team in school history as well. They have been led to all of these accomplishments by a head coach who once quarterbacked Avila through some tough seasons.
“As an alum, there were a whole lot of years as a player and an assistant coach without a whole lot of wins,” Benevidez said after the win over Friends University. “To finally reach this accomplishment is awesome.”
Early in the season, a tragedy struck the Avila football community as 21-year-old running back Justin Barbee died in a car accident. In a difficult time the Avila team came together. Each game this season they have honored Barbee by captains bringing his jersey out before each game.
“Right when it happened, everybody was talking about love, loving each other,” Benevidez said. “Knowing that you can love that brother next to you, you can trust in him, he’s going to help you succeed.”
Without that closeness that developed out of the tragedy, Benevidez said he doesn’t think they would be where they are now as a team.
It was fitting that in his final home game at Avila, NAIA All-American running back Malik Nesbitt ran for a huge day. Nesbitt ran for 129 yards on 10 carries with two touchdowns, one of which was a 61-yard run in the second half that sealed the game for Avila.
Avila is ranked No. 15 in the NAIA at the moment, if they are moved any higher in the rankings the win over Friends University it would be the highest ranking in school history.
“I talked to a lot of the guys I played with and some of the guys I coached early on,” Benevidez said. “Seeing the success we’ve had I know those guys are proud. Ultimately, for me it’s great knowing the work is finally paying off. And knowing those days I get here at 4:30 in the morning, it’s for a reason.”
Now the Avila Eagles look forward to the week ahead and their first trip to the NAIA tournament.