LAKELAND, FLORIDA – The rivalry – that didn’t exist but always did – is officially on.
Kudos to the district designers for plopping Lakeland Victory Christian into the newly formed 1S District 5 with crosstown rival Lakeland Christian School. Though both programs have achieved their share of success on the gridiron, they’ve never shared the gridiron for an actual game outside of some summer 7-on-7 drills.
The two finally square off Nov. 14 at Victory Field at Southeastern University, in what should be a very impactful game in the district standings. Even more interesting, Victory head coach Kendrick Stewart coached with LCS head coach Danny Williams on Bill Castle’s staff at Lakeland.
“There is a lot of respect there. It’s going to be a huge rivalry with a lot of respect,” Stewart said. “Their program is top-notch.”
Playoff appearances were part of the landscape at Victory Christian during the past decade. The Storm won a state championship in 2014 and finished as state runners-up in 2013 and 2019. Though they reached the second round in 2021, falling to Zephyrhills Christian – also now 1S District 5 – Victory is salivating to improve on last season’s 6-7 record.
“It’s the toughest district. With Bishop McLaughlin, Lakeland Christian, Zephyrhills Christian, and us, just look at the tradition of the programs. This is not an easy walk. I think the last couple of years everyone has made the playoffs or had playoff runs,” Stewart said.
For Victory to turn the corner this year, it will start with defense, which is led by senior three-star cornerback Marlon McClendon, who returned to stellar form last year after suffering a broken foot two seasons ago at Lake Gibson.
McClendon holds more than 25 offers, including Indiana, Iowa State, South Florida and Central Florida. He can also line up at safety and will return punts and possibly kickoffs this season.
“Marlon could go and play anywhere but he was loyal and decided to stay here because of what we were teaching,” Stewart said. “On the field, he is a great cover-guy. As far as man-to-man, he is dynamic and fast. He’s gotten a lot of exposure and been to a lot of camps. I definitely think he is going to take his game to the next level.”
More returning starters on defense include inside linebacker Martel Thomas – who led the team in tackles last season – and senior strong safety Armoni Rue, a second team all-state player, who led the team with seven interceptions. Also look for Noah Kaefer to make an impact in the secondary.
The defense will base out of a 4-2-5 set. And forget the bend-don’t-break stuff, Victory will be on the assault.
“We want to attack the football, make sure everyone is hitting their gap and create chaos,” Stewart said.
The D-line will be led by senior tackle Eric White, freshman 6-foot-3 end Jordan Jenkins, sophomore 6-4 tackle JJ Ruhstorfer, and junior end Elijah Blevins. Eighth grader Kodi Wright will also be in the mix at one of the ends.
“I’ve been working hard with this group, and I can’t wait to see them put hands on somebody,” Stewart said.
Victory returns four starters on offense: junior quarterback Jackson Benton, junior slot receiver Janius Taylor, senior offensive tackle Trent Lewis and senior wide-out Hayden Brown.
Benton, a right-handed thrower, moved into the starting position after transferring to Victory a year ago.
“He is definitely a guy to study,” Kendrick said. “We are looking for big things from him. We are going to run a spread offense because we have some dynamic weapons with a lot of in-game experience.”
The O-line lost five starters leaving only tackle Trent Lewis. As the only veteran, Lewis makes the pivotal move from right tackle to crucial left tackle slot, protecting Benton’s blind side.
“We are moving some young guys in, they are scrappy, and I want them to get big and powerful, but they will get better in time,” Stewart said. “This will be our younger group, but I really believe in these guys.”
Junior running backs Rashad Orr – a newcomer to the program -- and veteran Justin Lockwood give the Storm a solid one-two punch, along with speedster Andre Cruz, the lead-off on the 4x100 team, who will make things happen lining up at several skill positions.
“We are going to get those guys out in space,” Stewart said. “Hayden Brown, at 6-4, is a big possession receiver. He is a big target for us. We definitely want to run the ball. We will look to open up the pass, but we want to run, come off the line of scrimmage and be powerful.”
The kicking game is as good as it gets with veteran senior five-star kicker Joel McGrath – ranked the No. 1 punter and No. 2 place kicker in the state by National Kicking Rankings (NKR). He holds an offer from Grambling State.
“He definitely has a golden leg,” Stewart said. “He’s trained with Tom Feely (Jay Feely’s father). “He is really going to help us control the field.”