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DESPITE TITLE MISS, LOVEJOY MAKES MARK

Photo by Jerry Jackson
Lovejoy defensive coordinator Kevin Jones has to replace some talented players on Class AAAAAA’s top defensive unit if the Wildcats are to make another long playoff run next season.

Photo by Jerry Jackson Lovejoy defensive coordinator Kevin Jones has to replace some talented players on Class AAAAAA’s top defensive unit if the Wildcats are to make another long playoff run next season.

The season: On paper, Lovejoy ended 2012 the same way it ended 2011 — with a state championship loss in the Georgia Dome. But Saturday’s 21-14 loss to Norcross (15-0) in the Class AAAAAA title game was not anything like last year’s loss to Tucker. Against Tucker, Lovejoy looked outmatched from the beginning. But against Norcross, Lovejoy showed it belonged. And with a one score loss at Colquitt County, and convincing wins against Class AAAAAA upper echelon schools like Alpharetta, Marietta and North Cobb, the Wildcats established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in Georgia.

What went right: Lovejoy gained statewide respect. By the end of the season, Lovejoy went from an unknown commodity to a dangerously fast team that no one wanted to play. The Wildcats displayed a defensive dominance in its first year in Georgia’s highest class that solidified their reputation as one of the best defenses in the state. But quarterback Alejandro Bennifield, with a year of experience under his belt, provided Lovejoy’s offense with some extra potency. Bennifield passed for over 2,000 yards and Travis Custis eclipsed the 2,000 yard rushing mark as Lovejoy led Class AAAAAA in scoring, averaging 41 points per game. Although the Wildcats didn’t bring home the coveted state title hardware, there should be no more doubts of their ability to compete at this level.

What needs to improve: Not much. But somehow, some way, Lovejoy needs to find a way to win the “big game.” The Wildcats are 0-3 in games against traditional state football powers, losing to Tucker, Colquitt County and Norcross by just a combined four touchdowns. Lovejoy lost to both Colquitt and Norcross by a touchdown. Against the Packers, Lovejoy had two touchdowns called back because of penalties, and against Norcross, the Wildcats had a 14-3 lead heading to the fourth quarter before the Blue Devils started their come back.

Chances for next season: While the seniors had a hard time pulling themselves off the Georgia Dome field after Saturday’s heartbreaker, the juniors and underclassman walked away from the Dome saying what most championship runners up say after a loss: “We’ll be back.” Of course that will be easier said than done. Lovejoy will lose 32 seniors, including stars like Custis, Bennifield and nose tackle Nathaniel Norwood. All of the starting secondary, including playmaker Brandon Davis, will be gone, save sophomore safety Montrell Custis. The early strength for coach Al Hughes’ bunch for 2013 will be an offensive line that will return three of its five starters — players who have played 30 games in just two seasons. But Lovejoy should find a way to plug in the holes, with promising young talent from freshman and junior varsity squads that lost a combined two games. And, if nothing else, they should be favored to repeat as Region 2-AAAAAA champs.

Coach Al Hughes says: “We’ve already started our planning procedures for next year. Kids are already hitting the weight room hard to get bigger and stronger. Saturday was tough. Our kids battled. Their kids battled. Somebody had to lose. I hate it was us, but we’re motivated to come back. We know we’ll be underdogs next year, but that’s okay with us. I’ve looked around here and the cupboard isn’t bare. Trust me.”