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STOVALL: Last season’s loss fuels Lovejoy’s quest for redemption

Gabriel Stovall

Gabriel Stovall

As the sounds of celebration emanated from Tucker players, coaches and fans alike after its 22-7 victory over Lovejoy during last year’s Class AAAA championship game, a completely opposite scene was taking place on the other side of the field.

Lovejoy had seen its perfect, 14-0 season vanish right before its eyes. And while seniors like Rico McWilliams and Jermaine Hough — now budding college football standouts — sat in silence, pondering their last moments in a Lovejoy uniform, there were some juniors and even some sophomores that broke the silence just for a moment.

Not many words were spoken, but just enough to provide a backdrop for the seventh-ranked Wildcats’ return to the Georgia Dome this Saturday to meet Norcross in the Class AAAAAA championship game.

Coach Al Hughes can’t tell you exactly who it was that said it. But he can tell you exactly what was said.

“Those guys, as they were walking off the dome floor, they said we’d be back,” Hughes said. “And they lived up to it.”

And how.

Lovejoy punctuated its 13-1 season with an almost unchallenged romp through the playoffs, culminating with a 63-42 semifinal victory over North Cobb last Friday.

That Friday night was a night of records and firsts.

It was the highest scoring semifinal game in state history. It was the first time in Clayton County history that a team advanced to consecutive state championship games.

Travis Custis added to his legend — and the Lovejoy rushing record books — with his 290-yard, five-touchdown performance, causing him to eclipse the 2,000 yard rushing mark for the first time in his career.

Quarterback Alejandro Bennifield became Lovejoy’s all-time passing touchdown leader, his 43 scoring tosses surpassing Kisan Flakes.

But if Friday was about the “firsts,” Saturday night at the Georgia Dome will be all about seconds.

This Lovejoy team is hungry. You heard it during offseason interviews. You heard it after winning multiple summer passing league tournaments.

You saw it on the practice field, both during spring and fall camp.

You witnessed it as they marched through opponent after opponent, lopsided score after lopsided score. You understood their determination after going into a hostile environment at Colquitt County and nearly coming out with a win.

You felt it as the tide in Friday’s game shifted after Lovejoy went down to North Cobb 21-7 early in the second quarter. There was a point in that game where Lovejoy had outscored the Warriors 49-14.

And the single reason why Lovejoy isn’t taking no for an answer this season is because they were force fed denial last year. Lovejoy is no longer just happy to be there. The Wildcats aren’t just content with saying they belong.

The 32 seniors on this year’s Lovejoy squad will walk into the home of the Atlanta Falcons Saturday with something more to prove. They walk in armed with the same chip that Tucker placed on their shoulders after last season’s loss.

But the difference between last year’s seniors and this year’s bunch is that these seniors have a chance to brush that chip off.

“That’s been their biggest goal,” Hughes said. “It’s been their biggest drive. Prove to themselves and to those seniors last year that we are capable.

“Last year’s seniors wanted it real bad, but I don’t think they thought they could do it. This year’s seniors believe they should, they could and they are determined not to do anything otherwise.”

To be sure, Norcross will have something to say about it. The Blue Devils boast their own stingy defense, giving up just 13.4 points a game as they compiled a 14-0 record.

Norcross touts its own 2,000 yard rusher in Alvin Kamara. The four star recruit ran for 133 yards and scored on an electrifying 65-yard reception in Norcross’ 41-27 semifinal win against Colquitt.

Oh yeah, that reminds me. That Colquitt team is the only one to knock off Lovejoy this year.

But Norcross, making its first-ever appearance in a state title game, is where Lovejoy was last year. And there are certain things that winning cannot teach you — like how to bounce back from defeat on the biggest stage.

Lovejoy’s been there, done that and got the T-shirt.

This year, it’s time to trade that T-shirt in for a championship ring. Here’s hoping the second time is the charm.

Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald Newspapers. He can be reached at gstovall@news-daily.com. On Twitter? Follow him @gabrielstovall1.