It’s Friday night, and you have the hottest ticket in town. To get a good seat, you line up outside the doors hours before they open. Walking in, a man waves a $100 bill in your face in exchange for your ticket. You turn it down.

Entering the gym, music pumps over the loud speakers and fans line the basketball court, sideline to sideline. A recording artist performs the National Anthem, almost forcing one cheerleader to faint with his trills and vocal runs. He plugs his Instagram account before and after his perfect showing.

The player introductions start. Overhead lights recede into darkness, and a hype video begins to play on the wall. The players watch their own feats projected in front of them, illuminating their smiling faces with the reflected glow. You can feel the energy of the building starting to build in your chest, a tight feeling of anticipation.

A spotlight shines on the home players as they exchange personalized handshakes with a designated celebration specialist standing at the end of a hand-slapping line. The choreography is executed to perfection.

The game starts, and the fans start shaking signs shaped like the heads of their favorite players. Music blares in the timeouts as the fan base stomps the metallic bleachers rhythmically, baiting the few people wearing the wrong colors into a verbal shouting match. What they’re waiting for is the free T-shirts…and they get what they want in between the first and second quarters.

Don’t be disappointed if you didn’t catch a T-shirt. There’s still halftime. The same hype man who tossed some tees comes back out with a little cash. Fans are pulled out of the stands to take their shot at some money, literally.

Fans shoot a free throw, a three-pointer and a shot from way deep, all for five dollars each. Even an opposing fan wins something to spend on the way home. She appreciates it so much that she kisses the man who gave it to her on the cheek. A packed house enjoys the entire show. The home team wins. Fans flood the court afterward to take selfies with players in front of a set background. How could it be better?

Hop aboard the #KnightTrain, ladies and gentleman. It’s just parting the station. The tickets are cheap, and the show is worth it.

Conductor of the #KnightTrain

The man orchestrating the show is Pastor Jay Miller, President of Lafayette Christian Academy, which was founded by his father.

Pastor Jay, as he prefers to be called, is a man of many roles: Pastor, President, Hype Man, Promoter…you name it, he does it. Running an athletic program is a heavily involved process, but someone has to do it.

“I believe that leadership is the key,” Pastor Jay said, sitting in a customized LCA Knights’ padded bench chair. “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

Leadership is a term that many people claim to understand yet fail to possess the inner makings to display. It requires a pioneering spirit, and more importantly: "Vision," a word painted on the walls of the entryway to the gym. Pastor Jay isn’t one to shirk responsibilities though. It takes a certain type of individual to take on the task of saving souls as well.

Within a couple hundred yards of the LCA Sportsplex, aka “The Plex,” sits his house of worship, the Family Church. You’ve probably seen it, sitting right off 1-10 Westbound's University Avenue Exit.

A man very familiar with the word “faith” took on the difficult task of trying to build it in an athletic program that didn’t even exist five years ago.

Since opening the doors of “The Plex” for the 2009-2010 season, the exponential rise of the program is shocking. Pastor Jay specifically remembers a road playoff victory over White Castle in the 2014 season.

“I don’t think we had school for three days.” Pastor Jay said. “We had a parade.”

The team finished as Louisiana Class 1A State Runner-Ups in 2015, and they only lose one senior who played significant minutes, Andrew Epps. With 1A State Champs Madison Prep moving to 2A, the path should be cleared for the Knights to bring some hardware back to their growing trophy case next season. Lord knows, it’s built to fit a lot of them.

It will be Pastor Jay’s job to keep conducting the #KnightTrain, whether it be through social media (they have a very active Twitter account), running live stats, throwing out T-shirts or the thousands of tasks he executes to put on the production fans now expect. He can’t do it alone. Off the court elements only matter so much.

Pastor Jay often says attending an LCA Knights’ basketball game is like getting “dinner and a movie.” While he provides the cinema, plates and garnishing elements, Head Coach Byron Starks delivers the steak. It’s prime grade beef and cooked to perfection.

Only the best is served on the #KnightTrain.

For the operation to run smoothly, Pastor Jay needed a powerful, reliable engine and a clear view of the tracks ahead. Even the slightest miscue can derail a season. Pastor Jay picked his partner to build a powerhouse not only for his pedigree, but also for his desire to improve young men.

The Engine of the LCA Knights

 Byron Starks was a baller. Don’t get it twisted for even a second.

He was inducted to the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic and LHSAA Halls of Fame, led UL to two NCAA tournaments and scored 42 points in the 1990 Louisiana State Championship game for Grambling High School, where he is a legend. When the Knights traveled to his former high school in the 2015 LHSAA playoffs, folks at nearby restaurants and plate lunch spots said in a hushed tone, “Byron’s back in town…”

Why would the former LHSAA Coach of the Year in ‘06, 08’ and ’11 be coaching at a 1A school?

“I guess it was a match made in heaven,” Coach Starks said, with pun not intended.

Starks and Pastor Jay attended the University of Louisiana-Lafayette together, when both of them were still young men with bold ambitions. Starks went on to play professional basketball in the Netherlands, while Pastor Jay began his path down the spiritual road his father paved. Eventually their paths crossed again, and the result was a harmonious match of off-the-court showmanship and on-the-court excellence. It’s intoxicating to experience in person.

The two men give every ounce of their energy to the program. The young, passionate head coach asks the same of his players.

“When you get in the ball game, if you’re not playing hard, you’re coming out,” Starks said.

Starks, a man of deep faith himself, runs the program with zero tolerance for mediocrity, arrogance or entitlement. Pastor Jay appreciates his partner in crime’s serious approach to their endeavor and can testify to the rogues who try to test Starks’ authority.

“Every now and then there will be someone to challenge that, and you don’t win that challenge,” Pastor Jay said.

With talent like freshman phenom Greg Williams, who will certainly draw attention from Division-I college programs, and the Ledoux Twins (transplants from North Central High School in Opelousas), Coach Starks doesn’t just want to win games. He wants to prepare young men for a life in college basketball, and possibly the pros, if they take it seriously enough.

The only men in Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajun athletic history to play more games in their collegiate basketball career were Todd Hill, Graylin Warner and Brett Smith. Every young man to come through the doors of LCA could benefit from a little 1-on-1 time with Coach Starks, who came in with a plan in mind.

“I knew I wanted to lay a solid fundamental foundation, where kids can understand a college system,” Starks said. “We don’t want to just jack up shots, but we will have a fast pace so that if the shot is there, we take it…kids like that type of environment.”

Coach Starks draws every ounce of talent out of his young men and presents an up-tempo, entertaining brand of basketball for his players and fan base, while Pastor Jay supplies the metaphorical fireworks. It’s also Starks' job to drill this message into his players’ heads:

“The stuff we do, it’s not for you guys. It’s for the fans; it’s for the opponents,” Starks reminds his players often. “It’s hopefully a distraction. It’s distracted some of our opponents.”

Frosting is nice, but the cake is what really matters.

There is a certain, indescribable desperation that his team plays with that has nothing to do with the atmosphere. Leading White Castle by more than 30 points in the 2015 playoffs, Starks’ players were still diving on the floor for loose balls and cheering on their teammates from the bench.

Where did that come from? Travel back in time to when Starks was a star at Grambling High School, then maybe you will understand.

Caleb Starks is probably tired of hearing his father’s stories about Grambling High School. His father is probably even more tired of trying to describe his high school days, while coming up short of capturing the adrenaline that pumped through his veins on game days. Luckily, now they share an experience of their own in “The Plex.”

Caleb, a terrific three-point shooter, enjoys a home gym where fans wave a cutout of his head and the walls shake with support. His coach and father, Byron, can’t deny the allure of the #KnightTrain.

When asked if talent salivate over the atmosphere, Coach Starks responded honestly, “What player or coach wouldn’t?”

Caleb Starks holding his own cutout. (photo by Ryan Baniewicz)
Caleb Starks holding his own cutout. (photo by Ryan Baniewicz)

No Stopping The #KnightTrain

Success breeds adversaries. For every winner, there is a loser. The sun is shining on Lafayette Christian Academy, which means there are a lot of programs in their shade.

Any time a 1A, fledgling, athletic program smacks around established powers, the sound is heard state-wide. Lafayette High School, the 2007 Louisiana 5A State Champions, lost to LCA by the score of 84-34 this past season. The Knights also defeated Coach Starks’ former high school, Grambling, in the regular season and the playoffs.

When the wins and the financial support keep stacking up, the word “hate” is bound to start floating around. Local coaches and principals would never go on record saying they hate the Knights. Nobody that reports on prep sports would dare to give a quote attacking a local, prosperous program. Opposing entities still celebrate LCA’s losses, but is it justified?

Irrelevant teams are ignored. Mediocre teams are overlooked. Good teams are respected, but great teams are feared.

Why is there so much pushback when it comes to the growth of Lafayette Christian Academy? If rules were broken, they haven’t been found. Many people dislike 2A juggernaut John Curtis High School in football as well. That hasn’t stopped them from filling their trophy case for years on end.

The answer lies in one word, written on the wall leading from the weight room to the basketball court: “Vision.”

This is just the beginning. With the #KnightTrain operating under Pastor Jay Miller and Byron Starks (a member of the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation), the destination is yet to be determined. No goal is out of reach.

The only question remaining is: “Are you prepared to hop aboard the #KnightTrain, or are you going to stand in the middle of the tracks and see what happens?”

(photo by Ryan Baniewicz)
(photo by Ryan Baniewicz)

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