There isn't a high school football coach in the state, Tucker's Franklin Stephens included, who doesn't believe his team can be better in its next game than it was the last. And Tucker, as we all ruefully note around these parts, just won its second championship in four years.
The coaches at Lovejoy and Eagle's Landing Christian, coming off deep, but ultimately unsatisfying playoff runs, believe the same thing.
It's a comforting thought for a coach, that his team never plays the perfect game. That's good for job security, right? If your team can't get any better, then why do they need you?
But when you look at Lovejoy and ELCA, how much better can they be? Lovejoy made it to the Class AAAA final, with a defense that was better statistically than any in the state. Defense wins championships, they say. Where do you go from there?
ELCA had perhaps the best running back tandem in the state in John Tatum and Keyante Green. Few teams can boast a 1-2 punch like that, to say nothing of standouts like Justin Thomason and Isaac Rochell on defense, yet the Chargers came up short against an inspired No. 4-seeded team in the Class A semifinals.
"We were better last year," Green said. Yet the team he had just finished practicing with after saying that went further than the better team of a year ago.
This is the part coaches hate. You can't diagram luck. Controlling luck is like trying to spoonfeed the wind. Some, grasping for a way to control the uncontrollable, will fall back on cliches that suggest it can be harnessed by preparation. "Luck is the residue of design," goes a famous quote.
It says here that Lovejoy and ELCA are already good enough to win state championships. It says here that they will be good enough when they hit the field next August. It says here that both now have the requisite experience.
The question is, will they be lucky enough?
Being good does one thing — puts you in position for luck to reach down and tap your shoulder. Luck doesn't require a reason — like a criminal, all it needs is an opportunity. An opening.
And for these two, as the season wound down, all the luck was bad.
How do you prepare for Tatum to suffer the kind of horrific injury he suffered? What preparation prevents that? None.
Experience helps because you recognize the signs when luck is in the building. If Lovejoy makes it to the Dome next year, the Nathaniel Norwoods and Alejandro Bennifields on the team will know what to expect. They will know how to position themselves to be lucky. When opportunity presents itself, as it did for Tucker, the Wildcats will have the experience to sense that let's catch it and ride the wave.
Oh, the coaches will capitalize on the motivational opportunity that failure affords. Lovejoy defensive coordinator Kevin Jones called the 22-7 loss to Tucker "the greatest tool in football." Defeat opens ears that the constant drone of victory tends to stop up.
There isn't a coach worth his salt who lets that gift horse gallop past. You saddle it and ride, maybe hoping that you'll get so good that even if the other team gets lucky, it won't be enough to tip the scales in their favor.
Lovejoy and ELCA don't need to be better to win a state championship. They just need to catch a break — and not the kind Tatum's ankle caught.