Lakeland drew much attention late last fall during its run to a seventh state title, but Polk County nearly had two teams playing for a championship. Victory Christian lost by just two points to eventual state champion North Florida Christian in the Class 2A state semifinals. NFC beat Champagnat Catholic by eight points in the title game, so you do the math.
"That's a big motivator for us," third-year head coach Kendrick Stewart said. "We've been using that since the offseason."
Stewart is entering his third year as head coach, and his coaching staff is littered with former teammates who won state titles at Lakeland, so the coaching staff knows what it takes to win it all.
Running back Cornelius Shaw returns for his junior year. He was an unstoppable force last season, rushing for more than 2,000 yards. He'll again be the featured offensive player, but Stewart is looking for more from quarterback Jeremiah Byrd.
"That's what we've built our summer off of," Stewart said. "We want to be a more balanced team where we're not just running the ball. We want to be able to throw the ball."
Victory passed for just 524 yards as a team while rushing for 3,182 last season.
Byrd has improved his passing and will have playmakers at wide receiver in Keyshawn Covington, Justin Lewis, James Zoffinger and Tyler Gilmore. Running back Kiaun Lockett will also get touches this season.
"We want to be versatile and use other weapons as well," Stewart said.
The Storm have three starters back on the offensive line in Grant Gunder, Jaime Jackson and Gioz Diaz.
Victory has a similar strong core back on defense with six returning starters led by Lockett at defensive end along with Trey Riley, AJ Hogg and Kathleen transfer Tye Harriell.
Returners Gabe Jean-Simon and Jeremiah Poling are strong at inside linebacker with Jaydon Hunter and Isaiah Reynolds on the outside.
Veterans Jonathan Jean and Caleb Poe lead a talented secondary.
Don't be surprised if Victory Christian is playing for another state title this December. The Storm gained a lot of experience in last year's run to the state semifinals, which should be a beneift this season.
Victory's defense has experience and talent, and the offense should be more diverse this year, although Shaw again will be a huge force. The key will be getting more out of offensive players other than Shaw.