There is a big difference between this season’s Lovejoy team and last season’s.
In 2011, Lovejoy was weaving through unchartered territory as it reached the Class AAAA title game. With an all-star cast of players returning, there was no question that Lovejoy had all the makings of getting back to the title game.
Only one question: How would the Wildcats fare in the state’s highest classification with traditional powers Lowndes, Camden County, Parkview, Brookwood and Colquitt County.
This version of Lovejoy football looks like a state-championship caliber team with an offense lead by Travis Custis, a 2,000-yard rusher. To keep opposing defenses honest, quarterback Alejandro Bennifield has also ecplised the 2,000-yard passing mark.
Opponents have had to make a choice if they wanted to try and stop the Wildcats potent rushing attack and risk Bennifield turning in a spectacular performance with his array of talented receivers.
Or do they want to try and stop the passing attack, and let Custis have his way?
While opposing defensive coordinators have had their troubles figuring out the Wildcats’ offense, offensive coordinators have not had much luck either.
Lovejoy’s quickness has been too much for its opponents to overcome.
The state’s top defensive unit has recorded an amazing 196 tackles for loss for 1,154 yards. It has also totaled 69.5 sacks for a loss of 591 yards.
Lovejoy comes at you from all angles.
But the best thing about Lovejoy has been attitude. They have transformed from a team that was happy to be there into one of, ‘We are suppose to be here.’
Here and there is the Georgia Dome — the Class AAAAAA finals.
Make no mistake about it, Lovejoy will face its toughest opponent in the final game when it takes on nationally-ranked Norcross. To reach the finals, the Gwinnett County school went through Camden County and Colquitt County, which hails from traditionally-tough Region 1-AAAAAA.
While Lovejoy didn’t face a lot of tough competition during the regular season, it does have championship game experience.
It seems as if it’s Lovejoy’s time. And Saturday, they will bring back home a championship to Clayton County.
Derrick Mahone is sports editor of the Clayton News Daily.
Norcross has always produced its share of football talent, just not championship-caliber teams. All of that changed when Keith Maloof took over as head coach in 1999.
On a run of three straight losing seasons from 1996-98, the Blue Devils saw their luck change in Maloof's first season. They went 6-4 that year and haven't had a losing season since.
And of all Maloof's talented teams, this is by far his best. His 2006 team, which finished 12-1, was loaded, but the current group looks like a state championship team in all facets.
It also has what many of his teams lacked — a legitimate, powerful offensive line. Norcross has cobbled together effective offensive fronts, but the high school hasn't typically been loaded with a deep group of offensive linemen like we see from other Gwinnett teams like Grayson and Mill Creek.
But this year's version of Norcross has talent across the offensive line. With that, and playmakers like Division I recruits Alvin Kamara and Myles Autry, it makes for a dangerous offense. Quarterback Joseph Wilber makes the right decisions and is a good athlete, who takes advantage of a skilled group of receivers.
As good as that offense is, the defense is equally impressive. Lorenzo Carter, a 6-foot-6 junior defensive end, will be one of the nation's top prospects next season. He has a team-high 17 sacks. Linebackers Tommy Tate (170 tackles) and Kevin Mouhon are playmakers, while the secondary is loaded with Division I talent.
In terms of past experience, Lovejoy may have the edge on paper. But Norcross has played a more difficult schedule and passed every test. The Blue Devils have defeated South Gwinnett (a second-round playoff team) twice, Parkview (a quarterfinal team), Colquitt County twice (though one was in a scrimmage), state title favorite Camden County in the quarterfinals as well as region rivals and fellow quarterfinalists Mill Creek and North Gwinnett.
Meanwhile, Lovejoy was destroying opponents every week in Class AAAAAA's second-weakest region. The Wildcats' only real regular-season opponent was Colquitt County, and they lost 14-7.
The Blue Devils' experience in tough games will be one of the difference makers Saturday night when they win the program's first state championship.
Will Hammock is sports editor of the Gwinnett Daily Post.