A Tradition Built to Last

Written by RJ Walters

It’s the air horn that blasts after every score. It’s the young Viking hopefuls playing a flag football scrimmage at halftime of the varsity game.

It’s the pep band, a costume parade or contest and consistent recognitions of students and community members tying it all together.

Eighteen years ago Lakeland Christian was known as a “soccer school.” When the soccer season moved from fall to winter, the vision for football began at LCS. Today that program hosts 1,200 to 1,500 locals on Friday night for one of the most entertaining, inspiring shows in town.

“It’s such a family atmosphere, it’s what football used to be like back in the 90s…when at public schools families all went to games,” head football coach Danny Williams said. “I joke with everybody and tell them that Friday nights are actually for all of the events, and sometimes a football game breaks out at some point, you know?”

That on-the-field product and overall event experience hasn’t become memorable by accident — it is the fruit of groundwork laid by visionaries years ago coupled with committed players and team-first coaches, according to Athletic Director Todd Radford.

Radford’s office is located in the space once occupied by the left field of the Vikings baseball stadium, a generation or two before the facilities and overall prominence of LCS athletics became what they are today.

He admits at first the football team was “not very good” — which is supported by a combined 24-32 record the first six seasons — but the commitment was incredible from people ready to invest time, energy and resources into building it.

The modern-day success of the program cannot be highlighted with giving a proper nod to the leadership
of Head of School Dr. Mike Sligh who was a basketball, baseball and tennis coach at the school, as well as the first- ever Vikings athletic director.

“It’s amazing to see how God has blessed the school in general, but then it’s also a testament to the mindset of the administration through the years…realizing how important athletics are to a school, to the whole atmosphere and to the heartbeat of who the school really is,” Radford said.

Steve Wilson, former Director of Advancement at LCS, was the original “voice of the Vikings” as public address announcer, and staff and volunteers like Wilson have consistently created meaningful fan experiences throughout the years, essentially scripting out what the pre-game, water breaks and halftime events look and feel like. They built a family-friendly, safe environment for kids of all ages, and at the same time on-field success has paved the way for further success.

Williams said the turning point for the Vikings, in terms of being lauded as an upper echelon program, was in 2014 when the team went 11-2 and made a run to the state semifinals. It was at the same time that the program had its first Division I recruits in Christian Alexander (Florida International), TJ Simmons (Temple) and Eric Gallon (Virginia.)

“The goal of getting here, what we wanted was to be a consistent playoff team,” Williams said. “And now people come here and are amazed because they see the culture and the atmosphere and the quality of football being played.”

The team’s improvement over the years is in part the result of having a K-12 school of roughly 1,100 that creates opportunities for kids to play sports, including football, starting at a young age. Radford said it’s a built-in advantage to have four-year-olds falling in love with the Viking tradition, dreaming of being a part of it in years to come.

Williams, who played high school football at Bartow and coached at Bartow and Lakeland prior to joining LCS says he would put the Viking Stadium atmosphere up against any high school team in the state, and he enjoys the responsibility that comes with leading his players onto the field each game.

He says he tries to prepare himself for the electric atmosphere by watching some last-minute game film on an opponent and keep to himself as much as possible because he gets a little antsy the hours before kickoff.

“I stay off my phone, and definitely stay off social media.”

In the meantime, Vikings faithful will continue to share their favorite Friday night lights photos and videos on social media, all part of an electric fan base that continues to grow.