Josh Stepp never lost sight of the big picture.
Stepp, the third-year Lexington coach, knew it wasn’t the end of the world when his team dropped its opener to Westside back in August.
The Wildcats bounced back from 27-10 opening loss and rattled off a school-record 13 straight wins to advance to their first state championship game since 2000. Lexington faces Northwestern in the final game Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium for the Class 4A, Division II title.
The Wildcats haven’t won a state championship since winning three in a row from 1948-50.
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“I told our kids after the Westside game, just because you lost it doesn’t mean you are going to lose every one. If you win, it doesn’t mean you are going to win every one,” Stepp said. “We never set out to win 13 in a row. We really preach the mantra of 1-0 each week. We have been fortunate to win 13 in a row. Winning 13 games at any level is tough to do. I’m extremely proud of how we bounced back.”
Lexington played without two key players in the opener, including linebacker Trey Mitchell and quarterback Brandon Blake. Mitchell returned from the early-season injury and led the team with 136 tackles. He was selected for this week’s North-South All-Star game, but will miss it because of the Wildcats playing for a state title.
“Either way, it would be a blessing, but definitely glad to be playing for a state championship,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, a three-year starter, is part of a 28-member senior class for the Wildcats, who won 17 games in Stepp’s first two years. Lexington made it to the second round of the playoffs each of the previous two seasons before breaking through this year.
“All the hard work and time we put into this program has finally paid off,” Lexington defensive end Mason Mauldin said. “It’s unbelievable to be playing for a state championship as a senior.”
Like Lexington, Northwestern also lost its first game of the season. Byrnes defeated the Trojans 40-31 in the opener, but they have haven’t lost since in making their fourth title game since 2010.
“Obviously, you want to win every game you want to walk out on the field, but the end result is to be sitting here and playing for trophy,” Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson said at Monday’s press conference. “We put all our energy on winning the region and setting ourselves up for a good bracket. The Byrnes game was big, but it was bigger in growing the 2015 version of our football team.”
The Trojans have developed since the opener as James Island transfer Gage Moloney took the reins as starting quarterback after splitting time with Will Hagood the first two games. Moloney gives the Trojans more of a running threat than previous quarterbacks under Richardson in Justin Worley, who is on the Chicago Bears practice squad and Mason Rudolph, a sophomore at Oklahoma State.
Running back Jeremy Howard gives Northwestern a more balanced attack in its “Air Raid” offense, and rushed for 276 yards in the semifinals against Nation Ford.
On defense, Northwestern is led by Logan Rudolph, Mason’s younger brother, and one of the state’s top prospects in the Class of 2017. Rudolph leads the team with 14 ½ sacks.
“They can score from anywhere on the field and probably the best defense we have seen all year,” Stepp said. “It will be a tough test for our kids, but we’re excited for the opportunity.”
All games at Williams-Brice Stadium
Class 4A, Division I
Dorman vs. Fort Dorchester, noon
South Pointe vs. Midland Valley, 3 p.m.
Class 4A, Division II
Lexington vs. Northwestern, 6 p.m.
TICKETS: $10 and will be sold at Lexington High School on Tuesday through Friday during school hours. Tickets also can be bought at the stadium on the day of the game.
INTERNET: Lexington-Northwestern game will be carried on www.lexingtonwildcats.com. All games this weekend will be streamed on www.nfhsnetwork.com for a fee of $9.95. Burch Antley, Stacey Hough, Emerson Phillips and Tyler Cupp will be on the broadcasts.