To coach Josh Stepp, the Lexington Wildcats have proven themselves.
As they prepare for their second-round playoff game at Byrnes, Stepp is reminded of the way the Wildcats have faced and overcome other challenges this season.
“Those close games, especially in the beginning. The close game against Blythewood, where our kids showed a lot of guts. We’re down with two minutes to go, and we get the ball back and score in the final seconds and win the game. And then the big win at North Augusta,” Stepp said.
“That showed us our kids were never going to quit. You could tell then that these kids had a drive and a passion for the game and for winning,” he said.
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In Stepp’s first season at the helm for the Wildcats, the Lexington squad accomplished its goal of becoming Region 5-4A champion, finishing the regular season 9-2 and in a three-way tie for the region’s top spot.
The other goal, of earning the Class 4A Division I title, is three games away, and the path to it leads through Duncan, where the Byrnes juggernaut has not lost a second-round playoff game since 2006.
At Byrnes, the Rebels create a big-game atmosphere that can be distracting.
But the Wildcats are undaunted.
“Our kids play extremely well on the road; we’ve been battle-tested a lot,” said Stepp, whose team is 6-1 on the road. “We’re not worried about the flash, the flair or the glamour. That motivates our kids to play better on the field.”
The Rebels present plenty of challenges.
Central in the matchup are the teams’ prolific quarterbacks — Byrnes’ Shuler Bentley, whose 63 touchdown passes are a state single-season record, and Lexington’s Will Hunter, who has passed for more than 10,000 yards in his career.
Hunter must thread the Wildcat offense through a Rebels defense that allows an average of 323 yards per game. Lexington averages about 405 yards, with Hunter passing for more than half of that.
The Byrnes defense has 15 interceptions and 21 sacks, but Stepp said the Wildcats will approach the game as any other.
“We’re going to try to do what we do every week, which is play fast and play ahead of the chains, and we feel like if we do that, no matter what the defense is doing, we can be successful,” he said.
The Rebels’ offense, driven by Bentley’s passing with Shaedon Meadors as the primary target, puts up around 530 yards per game. Rushing from Isaiah Hill, Najee Bowens and Micah Young accounts for less than 150 yards of that total.
“They’re just about as complete an offense as I’ve seen in high school,” Stepp said.
“We’re really going to concentrate on our assignment and line up where we’re supposed to, and play hard,” he said.
Lexington approaches the second round with confidence.
“We have an expectation to be successful,” Stepp said.
“We’re just trying to make these kids better football players and, more importantly, great young men. We feel like we’ve laid a good foundation for the program this year. We hope we have three more games, but we have already started to lay the foundation that we want.”