Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers.
Win the last one.
That’s been the Lovejoy battle cry all season long. In fact, it began when they lost the last one in 2011.
Travel back to Dec. 9 of last year, and you’ll see a dejected bunch of Wildcats who had won every game leading up to the one that truly mattered to them.
The Class AAAA title game. Georgia Dome. Against powerhouse Tucker. A 22-7 defeat. End of season.
But the beginning of a new determination.
Last year was a great feat. A tremendous accomplishment. First Clayton County school to play for a state title since Mount Zion did it in 1999. They didn’t win the last one either that year, losing 17-7 to Oconee County.
Of course, if you’ve lived around Clayton County long enough, you’ll know who was the last one to win the last one. You’ll have to go back 12 more years before the Bulldogs made their run.
County coaching legend Bud Theodocion took his 13-1 Morrow Mustangs into Tara Stadium to beat Effingham County 21-0.
The last one to win the last one. But what happened to these two bastions of Clayton County football lore AFTER winning the last one is intriguing when comparing them to Lovejoy.
The Mustangs went 8-3 the next year, losing in the first round of the playoffs. The 2000 Bulldogs were stopped short in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs a year removed from their championship run.
Even Forest Park which won a state title back in 1951 couldn’t do it. That ‘52 bunch went 3-7.
None of them could even get back to the last one the year after playing in the last one — let alone win it. In fact, this year’s Lovejoy team has come closer than the other three.
Al Hughes’ Wildcats, with another dominating run through the regular season, and a determined jaunt through the playoffs, are on the cusp of getting another shot at the ultimate prize and county history.
They won’t be the first county team to get to the last one. They wouldn’t even be the first Clayton squad to win the last one.
But they would be the first bunch from the county to return to the season finale after playing in it the year before, which sounds nice and swell if you’re interested in that kind of historical stuff.
And something tells me Lovejoy is not.
Not that they don’t have respect for those that came before them. But Hughes and company have made it clear from the very beginning — rather, the very end of last season — that this year’s chief goal was not to merely GET to the last one, but win it.
They made it clear as they trounced through their first season in Georgia’s largest class by averaging 42 points a game while giving up just seven.
They made it clear by going down to Cloquitt County and losing a tight 14-7 decision that, many feel they should’ve won.
They made it clear by routing Tri-Cities, shutting down LSU commitment Anthony Jennings and Marietta, and stifling North Gwinnett during an impressive playoff run amid doubters who suggested that Lovejoy’s weak Region 2-AAAAAA hadn’t properly prepared them for Class AAAAAA’s big boys.
And if Colquitt County can get past Norcross, on the other side of the bracket, guess who’ll be chomping at the bit for a rematch staged at the Dome?
But first thing’s first.
Lovejoy can’t even think about getting to the last one, much less winning it, unless the Wildcats come to play in the next one against an 11-2 North Cobb team so close to playing for its first-ever state title that the Warriors can taste it.
But Lovejoy’s got a taste in their mouths too. Tastes like 22-7 against Tucker in 2011. And the Wildcats don’t like it.
“Last year we didn’t win that last one,” Hughes said. “And it left a bitter taste in all of our mouths. That’s why we said ‘no shortcuts, no excuses.’ It’s all about winning the last one for us.”
Which means mission No. 1 for Lovejoy is to make sure that this Friday against North Cobb does not become the last one.
Gabriel Stovall is a sports writer for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.