With change on the horizon at Lexington High, one thing remains the same. The Lexington Wildcats are the Midlands’ Athletics Program of the Year.
With championships in five sports and all but two sports in postseason contention, Lexington earned the honor for the fourth consecutive year in 2012-13. Based on its postseason performance in 20 sports sanctioned by the S.C. High School League and S.C. Independent Schools Association, Lexington edged Hammond for the Program of the Year title with championships in boys’ and girls’ cross country, girls golf, wrestling and baseball.
The Wildcats, who also won the SCHSL 2012-13 Directors’ Cup for statewide athletics prominence, have remained at the forefront of competition by being consistent.
“You take what you’ve got, you work hard and you make the best of it,” said principal Melissa Rawl. Rawl, a consummate Lexington sports fan entering her third year at the school’s helm, credited the Wildcats’ ongoing legacy of excellence to the school’s group of coaches.
“They are all true professionals. They know their sports well, they care about the kids and they work hard to get the best out of them,” Rawl said. “You know we don’t always have the fastest kids or the strongest athletes, but we have kids who will work hard and coaches who know how to lead them.”
So, even as the Wildcats anticipate big changes with the addition of Josh Stepp as football coach and athletics director and the loss of about 1,200 students — including an untold number of student-athletes — to the new River Bluff High, Lexington has no plans of resetting the bar.
“Lexington High has always been the flagship program of the district and it will continue to be,” said Stepp, a Lexington County native who takes the wheel of the Wildcats’ athletics program for his first AD job. He is the Wildcats’ third athletics director and football coach in five seasons.
“I love the challenge of having such a prestigious athletics program,” Stepp said. “It’s really a testament to those coaches, who run some phenomenal programs, and I met with each of them and told them that I’m excited to be there, to make sure I do everything I can to make them as successful as possible as we go on.”
Brandon Smith has been the Wildcats’ assistant athletics director for seven years, and said the Wildcats tend to respond to change in the best way possible.
For instance, the few changes in the Wildcats’ coaching staff in recent years have worked out well. During Scott Earley’s three-year tenure at athletics director, the Wildcats had some key coaching vacancies — with positive results.
“Coach Earley was able to bring in some key additions, like Matt Oberly — who comes in as track coach and wins a (boys) state championship his first year and runner-up this year — people who come in and try to continue with the excellence in everything we do,” said Smith, who led the girls golf team to a ninth state title and the boys team to a sixth-place finish.
Then there was the installation of Brian Hucks at the head of the boys baseball team, which in May claimed the Class 4A title.
So the Wildcats do not fear change, but instead seek victory in it.
“I’m excited about what Josh is going to do, and any changes that will be made I’m sure will be good ones,” said Smith.
Rawl said the Wildcats will weather their changes and attendant challenges with persistent effort, led by that corps of experienced coaches.
With the exception of retiring swim coach Anna Daly — who led the boys and girls’ swimming teams to top-10 state finishes in 2012 — Rawl said the Wildcats’ coaching staff remains constant this season.
“All of our coaches are remaining here, we are still expecting excellence and I just feel good about it,” said Rawl. “The excitement is still there, and we’ll be just fine.”
Wrestling coach Derek Strobel said the excitement that comes from being a part of the program is what drives the Wildcats toward success.
For four years in a row, Strobel guided the Wildcats to the Class 4A dual championship match and this winter, Lexington finally took the title.
“Every team here strives to be a quality program, and it’s a first for us (in wrestling) so it meant a lot,” Strobel said. “We had the support and encouragement from the other coaches and sports, and that is important. I really have learned as I’ve been here for a while, that that adds a lot to it.”
He said the support from the administration is a huge factor in the Wildcats’ various team successes, and Rawl said there is an obvious reason for that.
“Everyone at Lexington, from the administration to the community, wants to win,” she said. “It’s horrible hanging silver medals. When you’ve got to hang medals on the necks of the kids and they’re upset because they just fell short, that’s not fun. This year it was fun, to see the girls in cross country finally crying tears of joy.”
That’s a feeling the Wildcats hope their student-athletes will feel often in 2013-14.