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STOVALL: 2012 Lovejoy Wildcats could be best ever

Gabriel Stovall

Gabriel Stovall

My apologies to coach C.W. Campbell’s 11-1, 1999 Lovejoy squad.

Forgive me, Chris Scott, Kisan Flakes and Jeremy Lomax. I’m aware that you were all-state football players for coach Al Hughes’ 2003 bunch that barely lost to Westside Macon in the second round of the playoffs.

I’m sorry, Tashard Choice. You also were on that vaunted 2003 team that was closer than any other to achieving unprecedented Lovejoy postseason lore until last year.

Oh, and speaking of 2011; My regrets to Rico McWilliams, Jermaine Hough and Jamal Covington — members of the state-runner up and most successful Lovejoy team in school history.

As great as your respective versions of Wildcat football were and always will be, there may soon be one that trumps them all.

That is, if 2012’s ultra-talented group headlined by all-state running back Travis Custis gets the last word.

No Lovejoy football team went further in the playoffs than last season’s Wildcats who, for the first time in school history, advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

Hughes’ bunch got on the back and shoulders of Custis, who broke Choice’s all-time rushing record as he ran for 1,839 yards and found the endzone a total of 31 times.

They rode him all the way to the Georgia Dome, only to run out of gas in a 22-7 defeat to Tucker in the 4-AAAA state championship game.

The good news is this year’s team looks every bit as loaded as the last, if not more.

Sixteen starters return — eight on each side of the ball. Eight of the returning 16 were either first or second team 2011 All Southern Crescent selections, while seniors JuMichael Ramos (wide receiver) and El-Malik Roberson (safety) received honorable mention recognition.

Two Wildcats, Custis and Norwood were all-state selections in 2011, giving Lovejoy the largest return of all-state players of any team in school history.

This Hughes-coached bunch is good because of skill position depth; they have young players with high ceilings like center Randy Robinson who made the All Southern Crescent team as a freshman. Also because of quarterback Alejandro Bennifield’s emergence as a true field general.

This team should be great because it has speed to burn, and Hughes in his 12th season at Lovejoy presents a picture of coaching stability that is unmatched amongst Clayton and Henry County schools.

But Lovejoy has had plenty of good teams in its 22 years. Thirteen winning seasons. Five teams that have won 10 or more games and nine teams have qualified for the postseason.

And with its first deep state playoff run in 2011, it is arguable that last year’s bunch was a truly great team.

However, many good and great football teams have ended their seasons without hoisting the state championship hardware.

It’s championships that spell the difference between greatness and eliteness.

Sure, the Wildcats have region crowns. Five of them (1999, 2003, 2004, 2010, 2011) to be exact. But at the final whistle last December against Tucker no Lovejoy player was found basking in the glory of being back-to-back region champs. Instead, they were smarting from the sting of being so close to their ultimate goal, but still too far.

And that flavor lingering on the team’s collective palate?

“We didn’t win the last one last year,” Hughes said. “And that left a bitter taste in our mouths.”

Ever eaten something sour, or something that didn’t agree with your tastebuds? The first think you probably did was rush to find another flavor to wash away the taste.

That urgency — acquired in such a painful manner last season — is what can potentially make this Lovejoy team cross the threshold from being great to elite.

That urgency is something that Choice’s 2003 team never had. It’s something Campbell’s squads didn’t experience. And until now, even Hughes’ other teams could not relate.

That’s because the kind of urgency that produces 2012’s team slogan, “win the last one,” can only be taught by getting to the last one and losing.

“Really to get that far and lose the way we did,” Custis said, “it really does leave a bitter taste in your mouth. We have 33 seniors coming back this year. We’re more hungry this year. This is the only time we’re going to be able to put it together and get this done.”

Best ever?

Check back with me in November and we’ll see. Football is still played on grass and turf, not paper and potential.

But if there was ever a Lovejoy team that can feel safe to pursue that claim, it just might be this one.

Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at gstovall@news-daily.com. On Twitter? Follow him at @GabrielStovall1.