Lafayette Christian Academy was going through its customary pregame routine in preparation for last year’s Division IV state playoff game at Sacred Heart of Ville Platte.

The Knights had steadily elevated the status of their program from six-man football to playing in the Louisiana Christian School Athletic Association. Last year was the program’s first as a member of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association.

Given the seeding proximity of the two teams — Sacred Heart 15th and Lafayette Christian 18th — it had the makings of a competitive first-round matchup until Knights coach Derek Landry gauged the pulse of some of his players.

There were some blank stares, and the responses to some of Landry’s questions were barely audible and conversely LCA, which finished with a 6-5 record, was done in by a bad case of stage fright and a costly injury to its quarterback in a 35-0 loss.

“I was talking to them in pregame, and they were stuttering,” Landry said. “They were so nervous. I’d asked them my name, and they said coach. I said coach who, and there was no answer. I thought it might be a long night, but the kids got to experience it.”

There’s plenty of optimism surrounding the second year of LCA’s program which gets underway Friday when the Knights travel to meet Ascension Christian in Gonzales.

Not only does LCA return 15 starters, including one of the state’s leading running backs, Dylan Hargrave, but the Knights also have improved depth with a 44-player roster, an increase of 12 players over a year ago.

“I think we have a lot of talent this year,” LCA senior defensive end Desmond Prejean said. “We all understand what it’s going to take this year and how hard we have to work in order to make a run this year.”

There have been other noticeable gains outside the LCA’s roster that could correlate to reaching loftier goals this season.

Landry said he’s noticed the dividends reaped from his first full offseason weight and conditioning program, enabling the Knights to play more physical and aggressive.

“We improved dramatically from the spring to the fall,” Landry said. “That’s been a huge help, and we’re bigger, faster and stronger. Last year we played a little soft. To be honest, I’m not sure how many pillow fights we would have won.”

Hargrave gave LCA an instant big-play threat a year ago and will combine with quarterback Reagan Miller and running back Jeremy Joseph to give the Knights quite a rushing punch behind senior tackle Kyle Brister.

Hargrave was the state’s fourth-leading rusher after the regular season and wound up with 164 carries for 1,561 yards and 17 touchdowns. Miller, who was hurt on the first series of LCA’s playoff game, gained 601 yards with eight TDs and passed for an additional 800 yards and three TDs.

Senior linebacker Hunter Thibodeaux topped the team in tackles with 105, while Prejean was next with 103 total stops, 3½ sacks, three tackles for losses, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Landry decided to scrimmage Class 4A Peabody-Alexandria in the spring and fall and witnessed an evolution of sorts with close to 400 yards of offense and an overall successful showing in the second encounter.

The Knights built on that momentum with a 13-0 win over Westminster Christian in last week’s Kiwanis Jamboree, where Hargrave’s 100-yard effort typified a strong rushing effort, which Prejean capped with a 10-yard TD run.

After two road games to begin the season, LCA hosts its next two games with Hamilton Christian before hosting the reigning Division IV state champion Vermilion Catholic for the start of District 7-1A play, where the Knights want to improve over their fifth-place finish last year.

“We’re trying to set the standard for what we want LCA football to look like for years to come,” Prejean said. “When we go into a game, we’ll have in that in back of our minds, to set that standard.”

Said Landry, “Our goal this year is to be a legitimate district contender. We want to be able to push for that district title.”