In an office overlooking the school’s basketball court, detached nets drape over championship trophies, jerseys are in a small pile on the floor and a framed newspaper commemorating the program’s first district championship hangs on the wall behind a desk.
It’s an appropriate setting for Lexington Christian Academy head coach Nate Valentine as winning continues to surround him ever since he took over the basketball team in 2014. He set a school record for wins in his first season. Within his third season, Valentine led the Eagles to their first ever district title in school history.
The historic win was just the launching point as LCA would continue to achieve other monumental wins. Over a stretch of five weeks this season, they won the 2018 All ‘A’ State Championship and another 43rd District Championship and are now ranked No. 5 in the state.
“We’ve been on a pretty good run here so now before every game, my four-year old daughter will ask me if we get to cut the nets down and bring a trophy home,” Valentine laughed. “They’re just refusing to lose right now.”
Now Valentine has his team chasing another first—an 11th Regional Championship and a spot in the KHSAA Sweet 16. It’s a dream that almost ended before it even started. Facing Lexington Catholic in a district semi-final match-up, the Eagles were down two with eight seconds and Catholic had the ball. Then LCA’s Kyle Rode tips the inbounds pass and senior forward Carter Hendricksen steals it and gets an “and one” to win the game.
A series of emotions overwhelmed the fourth-year coach. He was considering the ride could be ending and suddenly, his team wins the game, wins another district title and is one game away from a trip to the KHSAA Sweet 16.
For Valentine, it brought back memories of his playing days at South Laurel High School. In his senior season, the Cardinals had to take Southwestern to double overtime and win at the buzzer to continue the journey that ultimately led Valentine’s school to the quarterfinals of the state tournament.
“Still to this day, going to the Sweet 16 is one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Valentine said. “You never forget that four-inch step-up in Rupp Arena and hearing that horn go off. I tell these guys all the time, Rupp Arena has the best sounding horn. When they hit that horn and you’re allowed to run on to the floor, it’s the best sound in the world.”
Before he was roaming the sidelines of LCA, Valentine played at Transylvania university and would serve as an assistant coach there for nine years. He didn’t intend to be a coach. Originally, Valentine wanted to work on Wall Street but ultimately felt a calling for coaching.
“I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing so I started volunteering at Transy and four years later, coach Toby Carrigan left to coach at. Mt. Saint Joseph’s so I took half a pay cut to take that job at Transy,” Valentine said. “But it was the best decision I ever made and I never looked back. I had the opportunity to take an NAIA head coaching job but it didn’t seem like the right fit. My wife loves Lexington so when this job came open (assistant athletic director included), it was a no-brainer for me.”
Valentine reached out to parents of players at the school to inquire about the program and stayed relentless about it. However, LCA’s coaching vacancy may have been a no-brainer for Valentine;it wasn’t for the school.
He would have to muster up that effort his team is now known for and create another magical rally to get the job because the Eagles were leaning toward another coach.
“They actually called me and told me they were going to go with somebody else and I hung up and called the AD back and said, ‘Take both of us to the personnel committee and let them decide which one they want,’” Valentine said. “If you really want a job, you have to go after it and get it. I remember coach [Brian] Lane always told me, ‘They’re not going to send a limo for you.’ I was fortunate to get this job and it was a blessing for me and my family.”
Transitioning to a head coaching position came with its own challenges. According to Valentine, you think you know what you’re doing when you’re an assistant and you think you’re involved in everything but when you’re head coach, you’re in charge of everything. He would soon realize how many decisions a head coach and assistant athletic director were expected to make not to mention the challenges of distributing playing time and sending people home happy.
Relying on the guidance of his mentors like Transylvania coach Lane and coach Carrigan, Valentine sought out their advice when a new situation would arise and the proper strategy to apply.
“It took me a few years to figure out you take bits and pieces from each guy and then mold it into your team,” Valentine said. “They have had a tremendous influence on me but even from growing up with my parents, we say it with our guys all the time—work hard, do what’s right and have faith that everything else will work out. I think if you coach that way and live your life that way, you’ll have success.”
Some label Valentine as a “player’s coach.” Building rapport has always been a focal point to his coaching. While at Transy, he learned that it was a coach’s job to help players; not to be mad at them.
There’s a deep level of trust between he and his guys. He boasts about the bond between them, the respect from the players, their willingness to follow and the great families that raised them. Valentine has such faith in his team that he even lets them call their own plays.
During the All A’ State Championship against Walton Verona, LCA was really struggling and got an out of bounds under lob to Hendricksen that was a crucial basket late in the game. Valentine did not call that play and they had only implemented it in practice the previous week.
Hendricksen, a 6-foot-7 standout for Valentine, committed to the University of North Florida and joins a growing list of LCA players that have gone on to play at the college level. It’s a process that Valentine endured himself and tells his players and their parents that he will be as involved or not as involved. But he’s always consisted in telling them, “Go where you’re wanted and where you can be happy socially, spiritually and athletically.” That resonated with his senior star.
“Playing for Coach V is a blast because he makes the game easier for all of us and puts us all in the right spots to give us the best chance of winning. He is more than just a coach though,” Hendricksen said. “He has been a really good leader for us and has challenged us to be the best we can be, both as a player and a person because he cares a lot about us. There is honestly no other coach I’d rather play for.”
Although a London native, Lexington has become home for Valentine’s family. The LCA community have wrapped their arms around the coach. He knows he can turn his kids loose in the gym for two hours and have no doubt that they will be fine. Out in the hallways, a parent will watch them or the cheerleaders will take them to the bathroom.
In fact, Cate and Nathan have become a beloved part of the team and are often seen in team photos standing right by their dad. It’s a testament to the family element that is being built at LCA.
“We’ll have the guys over for dinner at the house and my kids go nuts for three days before and three days after it because they look up to these guys. They’re just a great group of guys,” Valentine said. “One of the biggest reasons I do this is like… on Sundays, when I can bring my three and four-year old kids over and they can run through the gym or go have pizza with the guys. Seeing them be at a run-in and have the experience of being on the court and sitting on the bench before the game, seeing how much joy it brings those guys is really big to me.”
Good basketball and family are key components in Valentine’s blueprint for LCA but the foundation is built around God. That is bigger than any sport or accolade that at the Christian school. Basketball is special but it comes down to faith for the 35-year old coach and his group of players. That mindset is always present on the court and on the sidelines.
“We start every practice with a prayer, we pray before games and my guys are the first to give thanks after a game. It’s a big part of it,” Valentine said. “It’s a staple in what we do here. It all goes back to working hard, doing what’s right and having faith in God that everything is going to work out and that he has a plan for us. If you sat on my bench, you would hear, ‘God’s got us’ probably 15 times in a game. Those guys in a timeout or at the end of a game when it gets tight, my guys are going, ‘God’s got us. Let’s just stick to the plan.’ That’s a special group of guys. It doesn’t happen on every team.”
Something special is brewing at LCA under Valentine as the Eagles are becoming a consistent basketball power in the state. While the coach is proud of the progress his team has made, he doesn’t want them to be satisfied. He’s vocal about wanting the players to take the next step and push to have their season end in Rupp Arena…just like it did for Valentine at South Laurel.
Young successful coaches can get caught up and struggle to avoid the pitfalls of dwelling on their next move but Valentine isn’t concerned about his evolving legacy or how everything will end up. He knows that “God’s got this.”
“Early on, I spent a lot of time and energy wondering what my next move was going to be, almost to the point that I would lose sleep and it would make me miserable. I talked to a friend of mine who said, ‘Just chase winning and everything else will take care of itself.’ That’s what we’re doing right now,” Valentine said. “Just win as much as you can and if I’m here for the next 20 years then great or if something pops up next week, great. Just having faith that God will open that door and tell me when it’s time to make a move.”
Lexington Christian plays Scott County at Eastern Kentucky University on Monday, March 5 at 7:30 p.m.
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