Lovejoy coach Rick Francis will enjoy the benefit of having football players Alejandro Bennifield, Arshad Jackson and JuMichael Ramos all playing together for the first time this season at Luella.
HAMPTON — What does Lovejoy coach Rick Francis do about the fact that he’s putting a team on the floor that seems to be going in the opposite direction as his opponent — and not in the positive sense, either?
“I’m telling them to maintain focus,” Francis said. “We do what we do. We’re not looking at Luella. We’re not looking at their record. If we do what we’re supposed to do, especially on the defensive side, good things are going to happen for us.”
Lovejoy is losers of two straight — albeit fairly close games against Fayette County and Druid Hills. They are trying to get adjusted in a season without former standout performers like 6-foot-9 center Justin Tuoyo, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Jermaine Hough who just completed a stellar freshman football season at Jacksonville State.
The Wildcats come into tonight’s game with a 7-5 overall record and 2-1 mark in Region 2-AAAAAA play.
Indeed, the Wildcats lost seven seniors from last season’s Class AAAA quarterfinalist squad, but when asked if this was a rebuilding year for Lovejoy, Francis bristled a bit.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I look at what’s going on in our region. I don’t think any has a clear upper hand right now. It’s anybody’s ball game. Anybody’s region.”
On the other hand, Lovejoy’s opponent tonight is the upstart Luella Lions, fresh off a 69-65 win against No. 6 Morrow where they showed off a penchant for pressure defense and solid perimeter shooting.
It’s the same Morrow squad that Lovejoy faced and almost defeated back on December 8. In a game Francis said his Wildcats “should have won,” Lovejoy had a late lead on the Mustangs until a Wildcat player fouled a Morrow player while shooting a three pointer. The free throws sent the game into overtime where the Mustangs prevailed 64-60.
And it should be noted that three Lovejoy players were missing. With the football team in the midst of a run to the finals, Alejandro Bennifield, JuMichael Ramos and Arshad Jackson were out.
The Lions (12-3), winners of six straight, are surging at the right time as teams get into the teeth of region play. But despite the mini-losing streak, Lovejoy point guard Mike Harden says he likes the psyche of his team right now.
“We’re making good progress, and I think we’re preparing to make a good run,” Harden said. “We’ve just had a good week of practice and you can really see the intensity. We are playing harder and our chemistry starting to come together.”
Harden, whose averaging about 13 points a game, said the Wildcats’ team defense is a strength, and players are becoming more unselfish — willing to pass up an open shot to give a teammate a chance at a better one.
He’ll tell you that the success of this team is not found in superstar standouts.
And Francis agrees.
“It’s really not just one person,” Francis said. “It’s truly been a collective effort. Everybody’s been stepping up and trying to fill in some of our holes.”
Three of those voids will be filled in come tip-off tonight with Bennifield, Ramos and Jackson on the court together for the first time this season.
The trio’s return to the hardwood has been delayed, thanks to Lovejoy’s success on the gridiron. The Lovejoy football team played in its second consecutive state championship game on December 15, and several of the players have participated in other all-star games in the weeks after.
Francis said it might take a little while for his two-sport participants to get into basketball playing shape. But once they do, he is looking for things to pick up tremendously.
“I’ve only had one player who’s ever stepped on the court straight from the field and been ready to play right away,” Francis said. “And that’s Jermaine Hough. But the other guys know they’re just going to have to step it up until in the meantime.”
And don’t expect Lovejoy to start downgrading its goals because of the lineup shifts and changes.
“Expectations are always high here,” Francis said. “We never go into a season expecting anything less from the current team than the last team. We may not be able to do some things talent wise this year, but as I keep saying, as long as we do what we’re supposed to do on the defensive side of things, we’re going to have a chance to win a lot of ballgames.”