By Zack Huffman
It is easy to tell when it is football season at Lovejoy High School. As soon as the school day ends, the field behind the school's building fills up with various training pads, tackling dummies and clusters of young players decked out in white practice jerseys and light blue helmets.
In the center of the mix is the seasoned veteran in his green motorized vehicle, barking out commands to his troops that disguises his otherwise genial nature.
It does not matter that Lovejoy struggled through a tough 3-7 season in 2008. The Wildcats may not have been able to compete at the level that head coach Al Hughes typically expects, but he is not letting that worry him about the prospects for 2009.
"We've had a good pre-season. Everybody worked hard this summer to get bigger, faster and stronger," said Hughes. "We feel real good about our possibilities."
Aside from solid work ethic, Hughes has two good reasons to feel optimistic about the Wildcats this season.
According to Hughes, last year's freshmen- and sophomore-heavy roster brings back youth and experience along with a stronger sense of unity.
"This group seems to have a great chemistry, which is something we haven't had here in quite awhile," he said. "It's been a pleasant surprise to see them return to some of the old ways of being their brothers' keepers and taking care of business out here on the field every day. It's been nice."
That strong sense of unity is likely to prove crucial for the Wildcats, who are suffering from depth issues.
According to Hughes, while 150-175 players have been typical for Lovejoy in the past, this season about 125 came out for the team.
The diminished numbers are indicative of a larger trend for Clayton County schools, which stems back to mid-2008 when the county's school board lost accreditation, causing an exodus of students fearful for the legitimacy of their diplomas.
Lovejoy High School opened the doors for the 2008-2009 school year with 1739 enrolled students, which puts them around 100 students below the 1850-student minimum for class-AAAAA. Because the drop in enrollment came after the start of the two-year Georgia High School Association re-classification cycle, Lovejoy will have to wait another year before they are eligible to drop down to class-AAAA.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats will still have to compete against the larger schools in region 4-AAAAA, such as East Coweta and Newnan.
Nevertheless, as he is often prone to say, Hughes is committed to making his Wildcats "bullet-proof."
According to Hughes, a key component to success will be for his squad to get an early taste of victory to remind themselves that they are not necessarily condemned to another 3-7 season.
"We just need to get out of the chutes early on a positive note. The biggest thing we lack is confidence," he said. "We got smacked around a little bit last year and some of our swagger got knocked off. We're looking for some success early so we can get some of that swagger back."