By Anthony Rhoads
Jonesboro High School is a special place for Al Hughes.
Hughes played football for the Cardinals from 1970-72 and in his senior year, he was an all-county center.
After graduating from Jacksonville State University, he returned to Jonesboro and eventually became head coach, a position he held from 1989-93?
Larry Mortonson was Hughes' assistant at Lovejoy for several years before taking the head coaching job at Rockdale County last year. Mortonson stayed just one year at Rockdale before coming back to Clayton County as head coach at Jonesboro, a school where he had also served as an assistant?
Now, the former colleagues will face off for the first time against each other as the Lovejoy Wildcats and Jonesboro Cardinals will tangle tonight at Tara Stadium.
"I felt like one day we would get the opportunity to coach against each other," Hughes said. "He does a great job and will continue to do a great job as a football coach."
While both coaches respect each other and are friends off the field, both will be doing their best to guide their teams to victory.
"It's not necessarily going to be me coaching against coach Hughes," Mortonson said. "Our approach this week is Jonesboro against Lovejoy. I respect coach Hughes but we're trying to win a football game. I do have mixed feelings because I learned a lot from coach Hughes. He's helped me in my career and it's tough going against your long-time friend."
Even though Hughes is Lovejoy all the way now, he always will hold Jonesboro in high regard.
"It's a great place and I still have a lot of friends there," he said. "It's a special place for me."
The two head coaches aren't the only ones going into the game with some mixed feelings.
"Coach Mortonson was my defensive end coach in ninth grade and I've known him since sixth grade," Lovejoy defensive end/tight end Kyle Neal said. "It's kind of weird. He knows us and he knows our system. It will be tough because he knows our offense very well."
Lovejoy senior defensive lineman Jeremy Lomax played at Jonesboro as a freshman and sophomore before moving to Lovejoy. He is looking forward to playing against his former school.
"It's a big rivalry for me personally," he said. "I've got a lot to prove. Defensively, it's going to be tough and we're going to have to work at it."
Even though Lovejoy is known for its high-powered, pass-oriented offense, the game could come down to defense.
Jonesboro is solid on defense and recorded a shutout last week in a 16-0 victory over Morrow. Jonesboro's offense sputtered at times against Morrow and Mortonson knows his team will have to step things up against Lovejoy.
"Our offense is going to have to step up," Mortonson said. "We have to eliminate the penalties and miscues for us to have any chance at all. The defense is one thing that has stood out early in the season. They work hard and have done a good job. Offensively, we have to work out the bugs in our game."
Jonesboro defensive end Darrell Robertson has especially stood out for the Cardinals. In last week's victory over Morrow, he had 11 solo tackles, four assists and three quarterback sacks to earn Region 2-AAAAA Defensive Player of the Week honors.
"We're going to have to be ready," Lovejoy offensive lineman Chris Scott said. "It's a big challenge (to face Robertson). He's one of the best and it's going to make me better. I just have to play the kind of game I know I can play."
Even though Robertson is a force on defense, Lovejoy can't just worry about him. Defensive lineman Corey Denham, linebacker Rocky Lee and defensive backs Jamal Lewis and Daniel Casenave have all been threats to stop opposing offenses.
"We're going to have to play great on offense and defense and be perfect in all phases of our game," Hughes said. "We have to bring our ?A' game and we have to be fired up to win."
One year ago: On Sept. 13, 2002, Lovejoy quarterback Kisan Flakes went into the Jonesboro game as a back-up but emerged as the No. 1 quarterback after having a stellar second half.
Jonesboro led Lovejoy 3-0 at the half. With Lovejoy's offense struggling, Hughes made some adjustments at halftime and put Flakes in at quarterback.
Flakes then led the Wildcats to a 19-3 win and was the starting quarterback the rest of the season.
"Really, it's no different than any other game," Flakes said. "We just have to play and get better and better. Last year at this time I was working and preparing for my chance to start. This time, I am still working, trying to improve. You constantly have to work to get better."
Various thoughts on being state-ranked: Lovejoy is ranked No. 7 in Class AAAAA in this week's Associated Press high school football poll.
"I don't like it at all," said Neal. "I would rather be No. 1 at the end of the season instead of No. 7 at the start of the season."
"I like it," Lomax said. "We deserve it and we worked hard for the ranking."
"Respect is nice but we can't get big-headed," Lovejoy offensive lineman Anthony Parker said. "We still have to take care of business and play like we are unranked."
"We don't worry about all that stuff that much," Hughes said. "We've got a long way to go yet. It's a long, hard season and our region has been a little topsy-turvy. We have to take it one day at a time."
Special teams honors: Jonesboro senior Patrick Saxby punted four times for an average of 39.5 yards and was two-for-two on field goal attempts in last week's victory.
For his efforts, Saxby was named the Region 2-AAAAA Special Teams Player of the Week.
Flashback: On Oct. 23, 1992 at Twelve Oaks Stadium, Lovejoy trailed Jonesboro 7-6 with 10 seconds remaining. Lovejoy quarterback and current Lovejoy offensive coordinator Craig Chatman threw an 89-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Bradley to give the Wildcats a 12-7 victory.