Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers.
ATLANTA — Ouch.
Isn’t that what you normally say when you get punched in the gut?
Lovejoy lost to Norcross 21-14 in the Class AAAAAA championship game. Its second straight title game loss. But this one hurt worse than the last.
It was because the Wildcats came into the Georgia Dome Saturday night carrying a heavy load.
They had the weight of last year’s 22-7 loss to Tucker on their shoulders. They carried the heft of expectations that started during summer passing leagues and grew exponentially even after a 14-7 loss to Colquitt County in week three.
They were bearing the burdens of last year’s senior class. Rico McWilliams and Jermaine Hough, senior stars in Lovejoy’s defensive backfield in 2011, were on the Lovejoy sideline looking on and riding the ebbs and flows of a game that was both Lovejoy’s to win and lose — all in the fourth quarter.
And yet with all of that extra baggage piling onto their shoulder pads, the Wildcats still managed to strike first — something they didn’t do last year against Tucker.
Alejandro Bennifield found JuMichael Ramos on a 60-yard touchdown pass with 1:30 left in the second quarter which caused the Lovejoy faithful to erupt in a frenzy.
As the Wildcats picked up a 7-0 lead and took it into halftime, they did so with a spring in their step. The moment wasn’t bigger than them this time. Nobody cared about the lights or the cameras. They were only concerned about their actions on the field.
And those first-half actions — especially from Lovejoy’s defense — gave defensive coordinator Kevin Jones reason to be excited.
As he made adjustments with his unit in the locker room, there was a sense of confidence, but not cockiness. They had largely corralled All-Everything Norcross back Alvin Kamara, holding him to just 62 non-threatening yards on 17 carries.
They had rattled Norcross quarterback Joseph Wilber with consistent pressure all throughout the half. And by the time Bennifield found Brandon Davis on a 6-yard touchdown pass that gave Lovejoy a 14-3 lead late in the third quarter, you just got the feeling that something good was brewing for Lovejoy.
All of a sudden, this wasn’t just about last year and Tucker. It wasn’t just about the seniors of this or last season. It wasn’t even just about winning the last one.
When Lovejoy held that 14-3 lead with 1:34 left in the third quarter, you could tell something shifted. It was the weight of an entire county onto their backs.
And the players felt it.
After Wilber completed an 11-yard scoring strike to Myles Autry to cut the lead to 14-9, a sense of urgency fell upon the Wildcat sideline, and they knew the game was no longer about them. Lovejoy tight end Arshad Jackson told his offensive teammates as much as they got ready to take the field.
“Let’s go ahead and close this out and bring it home to Clayton County,” Jackson said.
But the offense could never get on track again. Travis Custis — brilliant in last week’s semifinal against North Cobb — was slowed in the first half, but completely stymied in the second. He could find no running room. He had negative 1-yard rushing on 10 second half carries. A week after running for 290 yards and five touchdowns, he finished with just 56 yards on 19 carries.
Bennifield could no longer find the same passing windows he had in the first half. And suddenly the defense couldn’t find an answer for Kamara.
After it was over, no matter how much you tried to encourage them, no matter how much you tried to tell them they had nothing to be ashamed of, nothing could take that pain out of their collective guts.
“We set high standards for the county by making it here these last two years,” said Lovejoy defensive end Zane Fields. “But we’ll just be known for not getting the job done. We let ourselves and the whole county down tonight.”
Don’t say, “It’s just sports.” The tears in the eyes of Wildcat players and fans and the somber looks on coaches' faces said differently. For a county that always seems to get a bad rap, always seems to be portrayed by media in a negative light, you could feel they just wanted to be talked about for something good for a change.
But don’t let the scoreboard fool you. Something good did happen. A few things, actually.
Lovejoy left everything they had on the field. They learned how to allow defeat to make them stronger. They showed everyone they could play with anyone. They became the first Clayton County team ever to make it to consecutive state championship games.
And say what you want about them not knowing how to win the big ones. These Wildcats repeatedly showed their big hearts.
After the trophy presentations, Jackson and Fields were limping back to the locker room. Not because they were injured. But because their hearts were broken. Fields clutched the runner-up trophy with tears running down his face. Jackson cried aloud to signify his anguish.
Both players, over 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds were being held up by a coach who beckoned them to “lean on me.” The two seniors were among the last to take off their helmets and jerseys.
It was enough to almost make a sportswriter cry. The Wildcats’ season-long goal was to win the last one. And one day – maybe years from now – after the initial hurt is gone, they’ll realize they did in their own way.
Hold your head up, Lovejoy. Clayton County is proud of you.
Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter? Follow him @gabrielstovall1.