By Gabriel Stovall
LOCUST GROVE, Ga. — The talent has never been a problem.
When you talk with Luella assistant football coach and new co-athletic director James Roberts, he’ll tell you as much. Then, in order to diagnose the reason why the almost always athletic Lions’ football program can’t seem to get over the hump, he points at his chest.
“It’s a heart thing,” Roberts said during a recent summer workout on the school’s football field. “We’ve almost always got the talent. We’ve got the athletes. It’s rarely never that. But every year there’s always something. It’s little things that break down. It’s really just us needing to learn how to have the heart to finish games and play four quarters of football every time we go out there.”
And if you look at the records over the years since 2003 that Luella’s been in the high school football business, you’ll see the inability to go next level is not just a hit-and-miss sort of thing.
In 15 years since the school opened, its had just two coaches — the recently retired Paul Burgdorf who coached the program’s first seven seasons before heading over to Union, and current coach Nic Vasilchek who’s been there since 2010.
In that time Luella’s made just two playoff appearances. The first came during a 7-4 2008 campaign when Burgdorf had former Georgia Tech standout and current NFL player Rod Sweeting on his squad. The next postseason berth came under Vasilchek in 2013, following a 5-5 regular season.
What’s come in between are bunch of seasons with good starts and tough finishes, bad starts and great finishes, or book-end rough patches sandwiching a strong middle-of-the-year.
Take for instance, the 2011 year. Luella started off 3-0 before losing six of its last seven. Or 2014 when, after managing to score just two points in the season’s first two games combined, Luella ripped off a 4-1 record to position it for the postseason, but then lost three of its last four, including the playoff game against North Cobb.
Perhaps no season was filled with more woulda-coulda-shouldas then 2015.
A solid 3-1 start put the Lions on the field with Class AAAAA powerhouse Stockbridge — a game few expected Luella to win. Yet, the Lions went to Tiger Stadium and, with a 7-6 victory, beat Stockbridge at it’s own game — defense.
“We were flying high then,” Roberts remembers. “And then we came back and did what we too often do after having some success.”
They laid an egg.
Luella promptly followed up the win to a top-five Stockbridge by losing 24-14 to a greatly struggling Union Grove squad. Luella would only win one more game the rest of the season, consequently missing the playoffs yet again.
But all of that now is nothing more than the backdrop to what Roberts is hoping will be a region championship challenging narrative.
Luella enters 2016, once again, teeming with potential and speed. Perhaps at the top of the list of talented returners is rising senior linebacker Keiston Lowery. The 6-foot-2, 205 pounder registered over 130 tackles in 2015 and has offers from Nevada, UT-Chattanooga, Furman, Columbia, Mercer, Fordham, Holy Cross and Louisiana-Lafayette, with more to follow.
Lowery admits he’s “not much of a public speaker,” but his work ethic has spoken volumes for the kind of commitment he has to making a Luella a winner before his 2017 graduation day.
“I can see the differences from last year to this year because we just want it more,” Lowery said. “We’re working hard. Work ethic has improved. The guys want to win. I feel this team this year has no ceiling.”
Lowery himself has embodied that which he speaks of. Over the offseason, Lowery has added bulk to his wiry frame, while also adding considerable speed. He said he shaved his 40-yard dash time from a five seconds flat to a 4.5.
When he mentioned that, Roberts began gushing.
“This kid, I’ll tell you. The scary part is he’s so unassuming, and he doesn’t even realize how good he is or how good he could be,” Roberts said.
Lowery couldn’t even bring himself to talk about the uptick in his college recruitment. After naming one or two schools he’s received interest from, he needed Roberts to step in and provide the rest.
“I mean, the recruiting stuff is okay I guess,” Lowery said. “But I don’t care about that as far as my team goes. I don’t talk about that stuff because I don’t want to bring attention to myself. I just want to focus on us. On winning.”
It’s a good year for Luella to hone in on it too. In the re-tooled Region 4-AAAA, only Woodward Academy seems to be head-and-shoulders above the pack. Eastside went 7-3 last season, but missed the playoffs. And Henry County, Druid Hills and Salem fielded respectable teams, while North Clayton is riding the momentum of having a native son, former UGA linebacker Cap Burnett, return for his first season as head coach.
“We’ll have to travel more some this year,” Roberts said. “But we’re going to have a competitive region where we think we should have an opportunity to really line up and compete against some really good teams.”
Beyond Lowery’s presence, Vasilchek’s squad has a good cache of 2015 contributors coming back, including quarterback Dwayne Thomas, tailback Ashton Curtis and Jordan Blanton, Scott Polovitch anchoring the offensive line.
Defensively, it’ll be Kailen Parham and Carl Fisher in the front seven and Bryson Merick.
Roberts is particularly excited about rising junior Latrell Murray, who, at tailback, may be the fastest player on the squad. During last Wednesday’s workout, he was clocked with a 40-time of 4.35 seconds.
“He’s going to be a player for us,” Roberts said.
Though the past has not been kind to Luella, both Roberts and Lowery say that shouldn’t be a reason to prevent optimism for what’s to come.
“When we get in the huddle we say, ‘Lions on three. Family on six,’” Roberts said. “That’s the difference for us this year. That family. That heart. The chemistry and bond. That’s really what helps you close the deal in those close games and seasons when you need that little extra to seal the deal.”
“The heart and the work ethic wasn’t always there for us at times,” he said. “But hard work, it’s there now. You can tell these guys don’t want things to end up the way they have before.”