By Gabriel Stovall
I still remember the scene. Feels like a game I covered just last week. That’s how fresh it is. Nevermind that it’s almost been a decade ago.
I remember walking out of the old Georgia Dome press box, heading to the elevator so I could get down to field level and find a place on the sideline for the celebration.
After all, that’s what we knew it was going to be. Lovejoy was leading Norcross. It was coming to the fourth quarter. It was redemption time for then-coach Al Hughes and the Wildcats from Clayton County. The Southside was going to get another state championship in football, finally. Clayton County would get some respect and Lovejoy would avenge the previous year’s disappointment when it fell 22-7 to Tucker in the 2012 Class 6A state title game.
I worked for the Clayton News Daily at the time, and I remember bantering with then-sports editor Derrick Mahone about the way we’d set up the design for our state championship commemoration page in the newspaper’s weekend edition.
Then, it happened. Actually, he happened. The “he” in question is Alvin Kamara. You may have heard of him. Star running back at Norcross. Overcame an up-and-down college career that began at Alabama and took him through Hutchinson Community College before he finished at Tennessee. Now, he’s one of the most productive tailbacks in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints.
I remember Kamara taking a hand off, bouncing outside and streaking down the sideline like lightening for a score. A little later he caught a swing pass, darted over to that same sideline and jetted his way toward the end zone again. After Hurricane Kamara invaded the fourth quarter of that game, it was Norcross hoisting state title hardware and Lovejoy players and coaches consoling each other after yet another close call.
Lovejoy football hasn’t been quite the same since. Coach Hughes would depart, and coach Edgar Carson would be promoted from assistant to head coach, and while Lovejoy hasn’t been bad, it just hasn’t been, well…that Lovejoy. That’s not all on coaching though.
The transient nature of Clayton County residents makes it hard to keep talent around for four years. And, with most things in sports, talent is cyclical. The championship-level groups of talent tend to meander through an area randomly and without much warning.
But that Lovejoy played with a swag that I personally hadn’t seen much of at the high school level. That Lovejoy, especially on defense, approached a game like it wasn’t even fathomable for them to lose. That Lovejoy played like it belonged on the biggest stage that Georgia high school football had to offer.
Coach Derrick Smith, now the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator acknowledges, that the thought of that game still gives him the shivers. Although the matchup with Tucker the previous year was tough to swallow, that Norcross one stings differently because, when you look back on that game, there’s really no reason why Lovejoy shouldn’t have won. I still believe Lovejoy had the best team in the state that year. But unfortunately, Norcross had the best player on the field on that day.
Since then, Carson and company have definitely been respectable. He took over after the 2013 season and has posted winning seasons every year except that 5-6 squad in 2015 that still went to the playoffs.
Lovejoy’s enjoyed playoff berths every year except last year, but have only gotten beyond the first round once. That was in 2016. Make no mistake, though. There’s still a good amount of talent parading through the Lovejoy halls from year to year. But it hadn’t been anything close to the Lovejoy heyday of the early 2010s…when the likes of TaShard Choice, Travis Custis, Preston Williams (currently on the Miami Dolphins roster, he began to emerge in 2013 before graduating in 2015), Jermaine Hough, Nathaniel Norwood, Rico McWilliams and others were present.
That’s until now. The 2020 Lovejoy Wildcats are 6-0, ranked No. 4 in the latest Class 6A AJC poll and considered the No. 14 team in the state regardless of classification by MaxPreps. And while the talent headliners on this year’s squad don’t quite carry the same household name status that those previous teams had, any coach who saw both those teams and this team play can’t help but to see some striking similarities.
The blueprint to those ultra successful Lovejoy teams in the early 2010s contained a 3-pronged formula: an elite, ball-hawking defense, a serviceable-to-good quarterback that led a solid, if not spectacular offense and just enough big-time playmakers scattered throughout the roster to put fear in the opposition.
This Lovejoy bunch seems to possess all three. Let’s start with the defense. Back in 2011 when Lovejoy finished 14-1 before the loss to Tucker, the Wildcats posted a whopping eight shutouts in 15 games. Only two teams in the 2011 regular season (Tri-Cities and Mundy’s Mill) managed to score an offensive touchdown against them. It was the most athletic, impenetrable high school defense I’d ever seen.
Even in the playoffs, Kell and Tucker were the only teams to score more than six points. Things weren’t much different in 2012. That year, Alpharetta and current Pittsburgh Steelers backup quarterback Josh Dobbs posted 24 points on Lovejoy in the regular season before Lovejoy ripped off four of five games with shutouts. The only school to break that streak was Newton. It scored six points in a 51-6 region loss.
Lovejoy’s offense was more of a juggernaut in 2012, though. And that’s why it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Wildcats would win it all that year. It averaged close to 40 points per game and was littered with Division I talent.
Quarterback Alejandro Bennefield was more than a game manager. Wide out JuMichael Ramos would later play for North Carolina State. Tight end Arshad Jackson was a freakishly good talent. Norwood and Zane Fields held down an athletic defensive line. Hough and McWilliams were two of the best corners in the state.
Fast forward to 2020, and this Lovejoy defense is surrendering just eight points per game. In the last four contests, including the 19-7 North Gwinnett win, Lovejoy has only given up two offensive touchdowns. And it’s guys like senior DE Israel Nwokocha who leads the team with 16.5 tackles for loss—a number that also includes eight quarterback sacks and six hurries, and junior and senior linebackers Mike Brooks (38 tackles, eight for loss) and senior Amos Barber (37 tackles, 26 solo) anchor a solid front seven.
The secondary and pass defense has been solid as well, as junior Cameron Henry, Barber, senior Quentavius Scandrett and sophomore Jekail Middlebrooks have teamed up to produce seven total interceptions through the first six games.
Offensively, junior quarterback Stephin Craig is that good-to-serviceable signal caller at the controls of a steadily improving offensive attack. Craig has completed 34 of 64 passes for 526 yards with six touchdowns. But having thrown only one interception this year shows his penchant for taking care of the ball and not putting Lovejoy in difficult situations. He’s also a threat as a runner.
Speaking of running, Middlebrooks and Travis Kinchen have proven tough to bring down, and they give the Wildcats offense balance. But wideout Antonio Jones may be, according to Carson and Smith, the top talent overall on this year’s squad.
Jones is one of the ones they mention in the same breath as some of those “household name” players from 2011 through 2013.
“I’ve been around here a while to see the Rico McWilliams’ and Jermaine Houghs and Travis Custises, and I’m telling you Antonio is just as talented as any of those guys,” Carson said. “He’s right with there with them all.”
Smith, who was the wide receivers coach for Lovejoy during those near-championship years, says the only thing stopping Jones and the others from getting more recruiting attention is lack of exposure. Recent Lovejoy teams haven’t made those deep runs into postseason play, nor gotten big wins against marquee opponents like this year’s team has. And that brings us to tonight’s 7 p.m. matchup with Tucker at Adams Stadium.
It represents Lovejoy’s ability to take the next step as a championship contender. And while the current cast of Wildcats were in elementary school the last time Lovejoy challenged for a state crown, everybody wearing blue and white knows how major this game is.
Dare I say it may be even bigger than the North Gwinnett game, because nobody outside of Lovejoy High School gave the Wildcats much chance to go to Suwannee and dethrone the Bulldogs, who have bounced back nicely since that loss to shutout both North Cobb and Mill Creek in its last two games.
This Tucker game is huge, though, first because it’s a region game. Lovejoy, Tucker and Westlake are all sitting atop the Region 4-AAAAAA standings at 1-0 in region play, and they’ll all get chances to play each other as the season progresses. Secondly, beating Tucker tonight puts Lovejoy at 2-0 in the region and in pole position to control its own destiny, even with Langston Hughes (4-1, 0-1) and Westlake (4-1, 1-0) looming.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome tonight is the psychological one. Although none of these players were even thinking about high school football nine years ago during that state title game against the Tigers, many of them—particularly the seniors—have experienced first hand Lovejoy’s inability to clear the Tucker hurdle.
Lovejoy’s 0-7 all time against Tucker. And tonight’s matchup will be the seventh straight year the two teams have played. All of the games, save the 2017 matchup with a top-ranked Tucker squad, have been pretty close. Last year’s 23-16 loss was a bit of a heartbreaker. But when you watch the way this Lovejoy team plays, you see some hints of that early 2010s swagger—the kind that made you want to pick Lovejoy in any game it played. A win tonight at Tucker would put this team’s confidence over the top.
It would also go a long way in making those who root for a state football championship to return to Clayton County believe again.
No, beating Tucker tonight won’t erase those Georgia Dome heartbreaks eight and nine years ago. But if Lovejoy can get out of Adams Stadium with that “0” in the loss column still intact, well, let’s just say that the sky is the limit for what this team can accomplish this year.
And all of Georgia will be forced to stand up and take notice of those boys from the Southside once again.
Gabriel Stovall is founder of BuzzBrandSports and founding editor of Southern Crescent Buzz.