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PREP FOOTBALL: Lovejoy looking to ride North Gwinnett momentum into Griffin tonight

The Lovejoy Wildcats were named Fox 5 Sports’ Team of the Week after last Friday’s monumental 19-7 win over then-nationally ranked North Gwinnett. The win snapped the Bulldogs’ 27-game home winning streak. | PHOTO: Via Twitter

LOVEJOY, Ga. —So let’s check the recent Lovejoy football timeline. 

FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 18: Lovejoy eeks out a 12-7 win over an Eagle’s Landing squad that had lost 19-0 to Jonesboro during its last time out. The Wildcats stay unbeaten, but with wins over lesser regarded teams like the Golden Eagles and Mundy’s Mill and a one-point, come-from-behind win over Carver (teams with a currently combined 1-8 record), no one was really checking for Lovejoy like that. 

SUNDAY/MONDAY SEPTEMBER 20-21: A matchup with fellow unbeaten, and nationally ranked North Gwinnett was looming, and the high school football pundits from places like the AJC and Max Preps were apparently not shy in forecasting a dismal Lovejoy fate. 

“I think the AJC said we were gonna lose 38-0, and Max Preps said 55-0,” Lovejoy head coach Edgar Carson recalls. “Nobody was giving them a chance.” 

Classic bulletin board material, right? Except Lovejoy’s coaching staff didn’t even use it when Monday’s practice came around. 

“Honestly, I mean, we talked about the game as coaches,” Carson said. “But I never mentioned the North Gwinnett game to our players at all. The way we saw it, we had so much stuff that needed to get cleaned up from the Eagle’s Landing game, that we just focused on ourselves.” 

Offensive coordinator Derrick Smith corroborated his boss’s account. 

“We left a lot on the field against Eagle’s Landing,” Smith said. “And they probably feel like they did with us as well. I think we kind of dominated that game and we moved the ball well, but we just couldn’t finish things off.” 

So maybe it made sense that Lovejoy was such a heavy underdog. But only if you’re not familiar with the South Metro Atlanta sports scene and, more specifically, Lovejoy football. 

Lovejoy has been arguably (or maybe not so arguably) the most consistent GHSA football program in Clayton County over the last 10 years, and this is stretching back to the 2011 and 2012 teams that lost in consecutive Class 6A (the largest in Georgia at the time) state championship games. In that time, the Wildcats have had nine postseason appearances (since 2010) and a couple of quarterfinals finishes to go along with the state title runs. 

In fact, it was during the 2012 season when Lovejoy last played North Gwinnett. The Wildcat defense stymied North Gwinnett offensively to the tune of a 21-6 win in the quarterfinals of the 6A playoffs. That’s when coach Bob Sphire was roaming the sidelines for North Gwinnett. Both Carson and Smith were assistants on then-head coach Al Hughes’ staff. 

Lovejoy went on to lose the state championship game in heartbreaking fashion to Norcross and some guy named, Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints fans may know him). 

“I still get pissed off thinking of that game,” Smith said, the volume of his voice rising to meet his stated irritation. “I think that one will always haunt me.” 

FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 25: Fast forward to the North Gwinnett game night last Friday. It was in the pregame locker room where Carson actually let the name “North Gwinnett” escape his lips in a conversation with his team. 

“I just told them that nobody expects us to win this game, but we know that if we go out and just play Lovejoy football, that we’ll have a shot,” he said. 

That bore out when the halftime score read 0-0, and people across the state were probably refreshing their web browsers to make sure what was being reported was accurate. But it was at that point when Carson’s talk about beating this team graduated from expected coach speak to pure expectation. 

“I pulled my guys aside and said,” ‘Listen. It’s 0-0. We get the ball back in the second half. We’ve got a real shot here,’” Carson said. “Whenever we win the (coin) toss, we always defer to the second half for situations just like what we were in Friday night.” 

It paid off. Move along to the third quarter of our timeline, and you’ll see junior quarterback, Stephin Craig connect with wideouts, Antonio Jones and Quentavious Scandrett to set up the Wildcats’ first score—a touchdown scamper by tailback Jakiel Middlebrook. 

Jones gave Lovejoy its second score on a 40-yard touchdown run on a reverse play. And then Middlebrooks tacked on a second rushing score, aided by a roughing the kicker penalty, to salt the game away—a 19-7 win where the Wildcats held the Bulldogs’ offense scoreless and two of Lovejoy’s touchdowns came off of North Gwinnett turnovers. 

Now, to the postgame environment. Lots of gloating. Lots of “We told you so’s” and “Don’t sleep on us” rhetoric, right? 

“Actually we came out of that game very humble,” Antonio Smith said. “And that’s because we came into the game humble and expecting them to play us tough like we were going to play them tough. And everything just came out good for us at the end.” 

But that doesn’t mean Antonio and his teammates didn’t hear the pre-game predictions. 

“Yeah, it was a lot of doubts about us,” he acknowledged. “But we basically just went in there saying we had a point to prove. Everybody said they were gonna hit us in the mouth and blow us out, so we just made it a point to go in there, go hard and put on for the Southside.” 

Monday September 28: Now comes the love. Lovejoy was named the Fox 5 Sports team of the week. Some state rankings catapulted Lovejoy to as high as No. 3 in Class 6A. Some of these same pundits were the ones calling the Wildcats an also-ran, coming into last Friday. Carson was steadily fielding interview requests for the first three days of the week. But he has worked hard to model a “take-it-in-stride” approach to his team.

“That’s why we don’t really pay attention to all that stuff, whether it’s good for us or bad for us,” Carson said. “We just work. We just work to try and get better.” 

Oh, and as far as the celebration for the North Gwinnett win? It was short-lived. 

“Twenty-four hours, really,” Antonio Smith said. “Really when Sunday came it was on toe watching film and getting better for our next opponent.” 

That next opponent is Griffin (1-2)—a program that Carson is very familiar with. 

“I coached there for a while, and I know what that atmosphere down there is like,” he said. “You’re not just going to waltz into Griffin, that town and that stadium and just get handed a win. You’ve gotta work for it. So we really didn’t have time to sit around and think about North Gwinnett anymore. That game is over. It’s on to the next, and the next one is a big one.” 

Griffin opened the season with an impressive 35-14 win over arch rival Spalding, then promptly took a couple to the chin in 45-6 and 54-14 losses to Lowndes and Peach County, respectively. Those two schools are perennial state powers. The Bears had last week to lick its wounds and learn lessons from playing two juggernauts, not to mention being able to devote extra time to prepare for Lovejoy. 

“We know we’ll get their best shot,” Carson said. “That much is sure. They’ll be wanting a win badly after those two losses, and they’ll have had an extra week to prepare. We’ll have to be ready.” 

For Lovejoy, tonight’s 7:30 p.m. kickoff at Griffin’s Memorial Stadium represents the Wildcats’ last tune-up before starting Region 4-AAAAAA play next week against Morrow (1-1). Check for more Lovejoy coverage this weekend, including a powerful feature story on Wildcats receiver Antonio Smith. 

Week Five Games

A Luella ball carrier runs past Mount Zion’s defense during the Lions’ 31-0 win over the Bulldogs Thursday night. | PHOTO: Tammy Hernandez

Two Southside programs have already been in action this week. That was Luella which came to Tara Stadium to defeated Mount Zion 31-0 Thursday night. Here’s a look at this weekend’s slate of South Metro games that we’ll be watching. 

Clayton County Games

Lovejoy (4-0) at Griffin (1-2)

Tri-Cities (2-0) at Forest Park (0-3) 

Riverdale (2-1) at Pebblebrook (3-1)

Drew (1-2) at Creekside (0-2) 

North Clayton (0-4) at McDonough (0-3) 

Jonesboro (2-0) at Banneker (0-1) 

Mundy’s Mill (1-2) at Woodward Academy (0-3) 

Henry County Games

ELCA (2-2) at Pierce County (3-0) 

Eagle’s Landing (0-3) at Woodland (3-0)

Strong Rock (3-0) at Aquinas (Augusta) (4-0)

Locust Grove (2-1) at Stockbridge (0-2) 

North Clayton (0-4) at McDonough (0-3) 

Dutchtown (2-2) at Ola (3-0) 

Union Grove (2-1) at Jones County (0-3) 

Hampton (1-3) at Fayette County (2-1) 

Creekside Christian Academy (3-0) at Wilkinson County (0-2) 

Other South Metro/South Fulton Games

Westlake (2-0) at Hillgrove (1-1) 

South Atlanta (1-2) at Lovett (2-1) 

Tri-Cities (2-0) at Forest Park (0-3) 

Drew (1-2) at Creekside (0-2) 

Jonesboro (2-0) at Banneker (0-1) 

Mundy’s Mill (1-2) at Woodward Academy (0-3) 

M.L. King (0-0) at Langston Hughes (2-0)

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Gabriel Stovall

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