When Nick Whitman — who rushed for nearly 2,000 yards his senior season after an injury-plagued career — again went down in the Eagles' first playoff game, Coach Ethan Atchley caught a glimpse of what reserve back Dillon Wheatley could do when thrust into the lead role.
Wheatley as a freshman rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns in one half versus Leslie County, then earned 103 yards and three TDs against a Shelby Valley squad that advanced to the Class 2A semifinals.
Atchley said Wheatley had thrived in complementary and blocking roles all season while learning the "tricks of the trade" from Whitman.
"We knew he was that caliber kid, that quality of a back and now it's his time to shine this year as a sophomore," Atchley said. "Having him for the next three years is a blessing, that's for sure."
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It's "different not having a senior above you" in the pecking order, Wheatley said, but he's ready for the challenge that awaits.
Wheatley heads a youthful bunch. LCA's depth chart is lined with talented sophomores who in 2013 went undefeated and won a state middle school championship.
"High school football is a totally different game from middle school," said Drayden Burton, a sophomore who will see time at wide receiver and in the defensive secondary. "I had a little bit of a culture shock when I came up."
The team is not without grizzled veterans looking to set an example, though. Senior center Will Southall said it's nice having an opportunity to set an example for players rising up in the program.
Riley Maybriar, a senior lineman, said the younger guys see the older guys put "all we can out on the field" and follow suit. Clay Ach, all-city last season as a junior, said his aggressive attitude on defense rubs off.
Atchley loves the challenge of coaching a core of seniors and sophomores. He said the work ethic his older guys display trickles down to the youth and that it's been a fairly seamless process getting them to work together.
Brett Wilkins, one of the team's rare juniors, said everybody's on the same page and seeks a common goal: a title.
"We're setting the bar for the younger guys so they can carry on what we brought up. ... We're really ready for everyone we face this year."
'Let them fight it out'
One thing not quite settled for the Eagles is the new face at the quarterback position. LCA graduated Dima Ballard, who accounted for all 817 passing yards last season and 706 yards on the ground — or 35 percent of the offense.
While there's no heir apparent, Atchley said it's between sophomores Logan Nieves and Brayden Miller. Both will receive significant minutes early in the season, giving them ample opportunity to battle for the starting job.
"Hopefully at some point one will solidify themselves over the other," Atchley said. "Early on we don't know what we're going to get when the bullets start flying so we're gonna test the waters with both of them early and let them fight it out."
Atchley wants LCA to be a top program. That means fostering a deep talent pool and not focusing on outgoing departures like Ballard and Whitman.
"If you look across the board at all the top programs throughout the state each and every year, they just reload," he said. "There's no such thing as a rebuild."
Why will Lexington Christian be successful?
Coach Ethan Atchley: "It's great to have a lot of experience on staff but a lot of it comes down to Jimmies and Joes. ... I feel like we've got players that are ready to break through."