By Brian Paglia
Over the past several years, an imbalance has permeated Lovejoy's football program, striking at the heart of what once made the Hampton school a football power.
During Lovejoy's best years, its teams struck a balance between the prodigious offensive lineman it has become accustommed to producing and athletic skill players. The production of offensive linemen hasn't ceased, but Lovejoy stopped getting the caliber of skill players it once did.
But that may be changing, as evidenced by Lovejoy's 14-12 win over Jonesboro in the championship game of the Southside Shootout 7-on-7 passing tournament at Warren Holder Park in Locust Grove on Friday.
"It's something that's nice to do," Lovejoy coach Al Hughes said. "We feel real good about our team. You're talking about just the skill people, though. You're not taking into consideration the line of scrimmage. That makes a lot of difference."
Indeed, Lovejoy will be buoyed again by an offensive line featuring rising senior Lamont Hardy (6-6, 330) and rising junior Jamaal Covington (6-3, 245). Both have received offers and interest from ACC and SEC schools.
Lovejoy has been searching for the skill players to match for several seasons, and Hughes said there are two reasons for that.
When Mundy's Mill opened in 2003, Hughes said it took from a portion of Lovejoy's school district that had been the source for such accomplished talent as Tashard Choice (Dallas Cowboys), Keith Fitzhugh (Mississippi State) and Mike Heard (Mississippi State). A small senior class followed.
So did discontentment. Lovejoy won back-to-back region titles in 2003-04 and hasn't won more than five games since.
"There was about a three-year period there where we kind of felt like we got put behind a little bit," Hughes said. "We've always had great numbers come out. ... But the type of kids athletically changed on us a little bit."
Hughes felt the Wildcats made progress last season. They lost close games to Westlake and Chapel Hill. They defeated perennial playoff contender Creekside.
Lovejoy finished 4-6, but Hughes maintained an optimistic perspective.
"Last year we were in every game," Hughes said. "Had to play in a great region with great teams, but we played pretty well considering we were playing with freshmen and sophomores. Things began to look good."
And after Friday at the Southside Shootout, things are looking even better. Rising senior Vic Hardison (6-0, 180) will be in his third year starting at quarterback. Rising senior Jevon Watson (6-1, 180) will be in his third year as Hardison's top target.
And a bevy of running backs -- from rising sophomores Rayshad Samuels (5-8, 165) and Travis Custis (6-1, 180) to rising junior Rico McWilliams (5-11, 170) -- are all on the radar of Division I programs, Hughes said.
Hughes sees a collection of talent ostensbily similar to when Lovejoy was at its best.
"The last time we had the combination that we're kind of looking at right now, we were back-to-back region champs and we had guys like Tashard Choice," Hughes said. "The kids we're playing with now as skill kids the past two years have been young kids playing varsity football. They've taken their lumps, but it's time now I think that they feel ready to redeem themselves."