HAMPTON — Georgia Dome, welcome back the Wildcats.
I was present last season when Lovejoy defeated Warner Robins to make its first trip the state-championship game.
The crowd chanted boisterously, “We’re going to the Dome! We’re going to the Dome!”
Friday night, after the seventh-ranked Wildcats’ 63-42 come-from-behind win against North Cobb, the chants were heard again.
This time, just not as loud.
As sweet as this win is for coach Al Hughes and company, it’s not the one they really want. And it was as if the fans sensed it. It was as if they learned from last year, that getting to the Dome isn’t as fun when you don’t leave with the hardware.
You see, they’ve been here before. The euphoria and excitement of playing to be the undisputed best in the state.
They’ve celebrated region championships before — three straight to be exact. They’ve been there, done that.
So excuse the Lovejoy team — and even its fans — if they act like it. Even their celebration took a businesslike tone. Even Travis Custis, after gashing the Warriors defense with 290 yards and five touchdowns on 27 carries, almost considered his big night an afterthought.
“I feel good. This feels good,” Custis said. “But we’ve gotten here before. We’ve still got to play. No excuses. No exceptions. State champions.”
If that line sounds familiar, it’s because that was Hughes’ mantra drilled into the Wildcats’ psyche after Lovejoy left its heart and soul on the Georgia Dome turf last year in that much-referenced 22-7 Class AAAA title-game loss to Tucker.
And thanks to a total team effort, the Wildcats get to go back to the place where Tucker painted Lovejoy’s defeat on the Georgia Dome’s turf canvas with one long stroke of speed after another.
But this year, the Wildcats will return, carrying their erasers.
Did the Wildcats play a perfect game Friday? No. There were penalties. There were busted assignments. There were kick coverage issues that Hughes said he hadn’t seen in three years.
In a game that resembled a heavyweight bout early on, where each team traded haymakers, North Cobb was the first team in these playoffs to put Lovejoy on the ropes.
Their team down 21-7 after the first play of the second quarter, Lovejoy fans were silent. Warrior faithful were Tomahawk chopping and the vaunted Wildcat defense was reeling — being tested in a way they hadn’t been tested all season.
Make no mistake about it. Tyler Queen and the North Cobb Warriors came to play. The 12-point underdogs came into Twelve Oaks Stadium, offensive guns blazing. Queen and running back J’Vonte Herrod worked the zone read to near perfection. It looked as if they could run it in their sleep.
But the defense settled in. And what they lacked in holding down North Cobb’s total yardage, they made up for in making huge plays. Lovejoy defensive backs picked off four Queen passes and returned two — Brandon Davis’ 74-yarder and Montrell Custis’ 63-yarder — for touchdowns.
Enter Travis Custis. By the end of the second quarter, his 4- and 5-yard gains were turning into double-digit chunks. He took over the game. He put his team on his back when they needed it most.
That’s what champions do. Not region champions. State champions.
In one of my first columns of the football season, I posed the question: Could this be the best Lovejoy team ever? I asked you to check back with me in November.
Well, the Wildcats have played beyond that. It’s December now. And the ultimate test, 14-0 Norcross, awaits.
Give me one more week, and we’ll talk.
See you at the Dome.
Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.