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Fresh pain to fuel Wildcats’ future — Darryl Maxie

Darryl Maxie covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at dmaxie@news-daily.com

Darryl Maxie covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at dmaxie@news-daily.com

ATLANTA — The business remains unfinished.

The 7-6 loss to Glynn Academy that ended the 2010 season and inspired Lovejoy's 2011 motto -- "No excuses; it's about unfinished business" -- left the Wildcats feeling like they gave away a game to an inferior team. The 22-7 loss Friday to Tucker should not.

"The pain is there, I promise you," Lovejoy coach Al Hughes said.

The wounds were fresh. Tucker players were still dancing about the field as Hughes tried to recite above the surrounding hoopla how proud he was of his team. And, indeed, he should be.

The Wildcats went as far as they could, to the 15th game, to the Georgia Dome, before running into a team every bit as fast as they, every bit as defensive-minded and even more battle-tested. The Tigers did not arrive at their second state championship in four years by happenstance.

"Our business is still not complete," Hughes said. "We came here to be state champions, but we ran into a great football team."

The inner disrespected child that fueled the Wildcats' run -- the one who felt its region and its county were disparaged -- never came out to play. Never got a chance really. Tucker hit the Wildcats with the following combo before halftime -- touchdown, safety, touchdown -- and Lovejoy staggered to the locker room down by its largest deficit of the season. For just such occasions was the word "uh-oh" was invented.

The Tigers weren't worried about the Wildcats, Tucker coach Franklin Stephens said -- not a slap at Lovejoy as much as it was a statement about the single-minded vision it takes to be state champions.

"I was more concerned about how we would play," Stephens said. "I was worried about Lovejoy blocking kicks and changing the game that way, but I'm never overly concerned about the other team. You can't worry about the other team."

Too little went the Wildcats' way. They had heart, but not instant replay. Rico McWilliams caught a first down-worthy ball from Alejandro Bennifield, only to have a referee rule him out of bounds. Instant replay begged to differ, but there's no red flag for Hughes to throw in high school football.

But, to Lovejoy's credit, there was no towel thrown in either. The Wildcats kept paddling against the maroon and gold tide, but when it appeared something was about to go right, even that went horribly awry. Tucker's Terrell Simmons picked off a pass in the corner of the end zone that wasn't intended for him, even though once lofted it sure looked like it was. Juwaan Williams, Alejandro Bennifield's quarterback counterpart, played a little cornerback, too, and dived to snag another errant toss.

By the time something did go right -- Arshad Jackson catching a 6-yard, soft Bennifield toss into the end zone midway through the fourth quarter -- there wasn't enough clock left to combine it with another blow.

"They were like a machine," Lovejoy defensive coordinator Kevin Jones said. "Our machine started a little late. We weren't in fast mode. But we'll be even better next year."

It will be hard to improve on this 14-1 team. The Wildcats pushed it to the 15-game limit.

"We've got to win it all," Jones said. "This is the first time we've been in this (championship game) arena. We're going to learn from this. It's the greatest tool in football."

Eighteen seniors will join the great cloud of alumni who will look to their successors to realize the Lovejoy's unfinished business.

"I'm going to miss this senior class," Hughes said. "Tucker has a little (playoff) experience on us. ... Our whole program is based on steppingstones. First, we made it to the playoffs, then we made it to the second round. Now, we've had back-to-back undefeated regular seasons. We made it to the Dome. The next stride for us is to come back here and win it."

Darryl Maxie covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at dmaxie@news-daily.com