Photo by Derrick Mahone
Lovejoy defensive players (left-right) Terry Harper, Zane Fields and Nathaniel Norwood have played together since they were students at Lovejoy Middle School. Friday, the threesome is hoping to lead the sixth-ranked Wildcats to their first state championship when they take on top-ranked Tucker at the Georgia Dome.
Kevin May wasn’t ready to declare that the group of middle school football players he coached would some day be playing for a state title, but the former Lovejoy Middle School coach knew they were a special group.
May has watched with a lot of pride and excitement this season as Lovejoy has gone from unknown to on the verge of a state title. Before becoming the Clayton County athletics director, he coached many of the players on this season’s Lovejoy team that will take on Tucker this Friday at the Georgia Dome for the Class AAAA title.
Prior to his appointment this fall as county AD, May spent seven years as the Lovejoy Middle School coach.
“I’m extremely proud of all of them,” May said. “I won’t say that I expected them to reach this plateau, but they have put the work into it. They have had the mindset since middle school that they were not going to get beat.”
The core of this season’s team has been together since attending Lovejoy Middle, which is located across from the Lovejoy High practice field. Lovejoy coaches say they watched as this group was a dominant force on the middle school level.
“You could see some talent there,” Lovejoy offensive coordinator Craig Chatman said.
He would watch as this season’s star running back, Travis Custis, a junior, would dominate a rushing attack. Custis was paired in the backfield with senior Rico McWilliams, who has since developed into one of the top defensive back prospects in the state.
McWilliams has verbally committed to play at South Carolina next season.
May and Chatman agree that part of the team’s success has been that they have been together for a while.
“This is a close-knit group,” Chatman said. “They really like each other, and the
most important thing is that they trust each other.”
They also hold one another accountable.
If a wide receiver drops a ball in practice, it is usually the defensive back that demands they give them pushups.
Friday, this group will be playing for that championship that slipped away in middle school. Lovejoy Middle lost to North Clayton Middle in the championship game after a holding call nullified a potential game-winning touchdown.
May has watched the tape several times still “looking for that holding” on the play.
But, that has past, and now the team can play for a bigger prize. Lovejoy is the first Clayton County school to play for a state title since Mount Zion reached the finals in 1999, losing at Oconee County.
Morrow is the last county team to win a state title when it defeated Effingham County in 1987.
This group has paid the price since they were sophomores in Class AAAAA. The team suffered through consecutive losing seasons before going undefeated in the regular season last year.
“We took a beating in our previous class,” Chatman said. “I think that has definitely helped us.”
Getting to this point definitely hasn’t been easy both on and off the field.
When the school system was stripped of its accreditation in 2008, several students, including some top athletes fled the county.
Chatman said Lovejoy lost a few athletes, but the majority stayed.
In 2009, the system was given its full accreditation back.
“We were really worried during that time,” Chatman said. “We felt we weren’t going to keep this group together.”
But they did, and they are seeing the benefits.
Lovejoy is one of the few schools in the county that gets most of its students from one school — Lovejoy Middle.
And the coaches say that helps.
“We are all good friends,” McWilliams said. “We hang out together and watch a lot of film together. I think being so close to each other has been a big part of our success.”