High School Sports

Lexington at home at last

8/29/08, Lexington, SC: Lexington High's Shelton Wilkerson celebrates a Lexington High touchdown on the opening kickoff in the game between Lexington High and Batesburg-Leesville High during the first game at Lexington High's new football stadium.  Jeff Blake/jblake@thestate.com
8/29/08, Lexington, SC: Lexington High's Shelton Wilkerson celebrates a Lexington High touchdown on the opening kickoff in the game between Lexington High and Batesburg-Leesville High during the first game at Lexington High's new football stadium. Jeff Blake/jblake@thestate.com

Whoever wrote the script for the Friday night opening of Lexington High’s new on-campus football stadium made every one of the details perfect.

A beautiful summer evening.

A fun-filled pregame party.

Statewide television coverage.

And on the first play in the stadium’s history, a Wildcat player christened the field by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown on the way to a resounding victory against a neighboring rival.

“What a way to open the new stadium,” said athletics director and football coach Allen Sitterle, who had a big smile on his face immediately after walking off the field in the 33-14 victory against Batesburg-Leesville.

Everyone had plenty of reason to smile, none more so than junior receiver Adrian Wigfall, whose long kickoff return fulfilled a personal mission.

“I was talking about running back the opening kickoff all week,” he said.

It electrified the capacity crowd in the $5 million, 5,500-seat as yet unnamed stadium, yet another shiny new testament to the resurgence on Lexington’s campus. After playing the past 37 years at the off-campus district facility on Ballpark Road fondly known as Wildcat Hollow, the Wildcats now have a place they can truly call their own. Sitterle loved how fans responded to the script with rave reviews.

“This is probably more people than we had in five home games all last year. This means so much to us,” he said, noting the strong support of the student body. “This is absolutely unbelievable. That’s what we were hoping for.”

The students couldn’t have agreed more.

Seniors Zach Howerton and Quentin Sills were grilling hot dogs 2½ hours before kickoff in the parking lot just outside the school’s gym. Expecting about 50 partygoers, they had assembled enough food to keep everyone happy: 48 hot dogs, 300 chicken nuggets and four pounds of barbecue.

“It’s a better environment to have the game. It’s more convenient. You can come straight out of school and tailgate,” Howerton said.

Added Sills, “Having the stadium for our senior year, we have a lot to be proud of. It’s a nice stadium. Having the old stadium on Ballpark Road was fun, but this means a lot more.”

As cheerleaders Taylor Hudson and Caroline Geiser walked through the parking lot, they concurred.

“It’s our home,” Hudson said.

“You can stay here and hang out until the game,” Geiser said.

The party was just getting started over on the practice football field, with the Cat’s Blast put on by the athletics booster club getting underway.

Kim McMillan and Allen Adkins, two Lexington moms who helped with organizing the pregame festivities, were among the excited parents, students and community members having a good time waiting for kickoff.

Adkins summed up the feeling.

“It’s going to be easier to get involved,” she said. “There’s some ownership now. There’s a lot of school spirit and a lot of pride in having our own stadium.”

Bert Dooley, a school board member since 1996 and chairman when the 2004 bond referendum passed that allowed for the building of the new stadium, was taking in the sights and sounds as well.

A 1973 graduate, Dooley understands the school’s long tradition. His father, Albert, was a 1947 graduate, and his son, Trey, finished in 1999. They all played football for the Wildcats.

“We’ve always wanted to have this stadium on site. There’s a sense of pride and a sense of togetherness being on campus,” Dooley said. “This is our house. It’s nobody else’s house.”

In fact, the $12 white T-shirts for sale had “Home of the Wildcats” emblazoned on the front and “Protect Our House” on the back.

Lexington’s stadium is the last of four on-campus facilities to open on the four Lexington District 1 high schools within the past year. White Knoll and Pelion opened their stadiums in 2007, and Gilbert had its stadium opening the previous week.

Joe Bedenbaugh, Lexington 1’s chief facilities supervisor, said both the district and the community had tired of putting their teams on buses for home games.

“We had a vision that was given to us by our own people and by the voters in the school district to move forward with the stadiums,” Bedenbaugh said. “The kids at the schools never felt like they had a homefield advantage.”

Lexington’s impressive new structure on the corner of U.S. 1 and Pisgah Church Road definitely has the look of a place that can be advantageous.

Longtime basketball and cross country coach Bailey Harris loves what is happening on campus. As he waited to take a turn in the dunking booth at the Cat’s Blast, he talked of the significance, which he experienced when the palatial new gym opened last season.

“It’s awesome to have a stadium on campus. It’s a great atmosphere. High school kids need an opportunity to have good clean fun, and this is providing it,” Harris said. “You look at our baseball, softball, basketball, and now the football stadium. I wouldn’t trade this with anybody facilities-wise. You can’t beat it.”

The kids not only lined up to take a crack at dunking Harris, but they also went up and down the giant slide and the bounce slide as WCOS DJ Ronny Lane blasted non-stop music like Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” over the speakers.

Lane, a ‘93 Lexington grad, was more than happy to pump out the tunes. “I love it here. This is pretty exciting. You’ve got to love Lexington,” he said.

Inside the stadium, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Even 30 rows up in the top corner of the home side, the sightlines are clear and the view is great, with the football field in front and the school back in the distance.

Carol and Mark Wiggins were firmly planted in their seats over an hour before kickoff. Sitting 10 rows up on the 50-yard line along with other family members, they were waiting to watch their son, John, a senior center.

“It was neat John was able to play the last game in Wildcat Hollow and to be able to play the first game at this stadium,” said Carol Wiggins, who feeds many of the linemen on Thursday nights at her home. “They’re so excited. There is a huge difference between two years ago and this year.”

Count the band in as well. Jerry Gatch, who has served for 16 years as director, had his own big smile as his students filed into the stadium.

“It’s great just to walk from our band room over here for the first time. They’re really excited about being on campus,” Gatch said.

Forty minutes before kickoff, a number of male students with their bare chests painted blue and gold stood ready to wave giant flags and bang on cowbells. P.A. guy Jason Harman was prepared as well.

“Everything is ready to go. We’ve got a great system, with new sound and a new scoreboard. It’s state of the art,” Harman said.

Five minutes before kickoff, blue and white balloons floated up into the sky, and the Wildcats roared onto the field as the fans waved their blue and gold towels.

Next up is Wigfall’s opening-act performance, which really gets the fans excited. Over the next two hours, the Wildcats run all over B-L, especially star running back Anthony Carden, whose nearly 200 yards and four touchdowns cap what has become a perfect night.

“This means a lot. It makes my senior year something special. A senior year is always special, but this is icing on the cake,” Carden said. “I’ve never seen a crowd like this the whole time I’ve played for Lexington.”

Reach White at (803) 771-8643.

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