STATE FOOTBALL: Battle-tested Lovejoy ready for another challenge in top-ranked Dalton By Luke Strickland


LOVEJOY — The Lovejoy Wildcats will have their hands full when they travel to take on the Dalton Catamounts Friday night in the second round of the Class AAAAAA state football playoffs.

The Catamounts, champions of Region 6-AAAAAA, are unbeaten this season and ranked No. 1 in Class AAAAAA by the Georgia Sports Writers Association. Dalton is coming off a 42-7 win over Winder-Barrow last week in the first round.

While the deck may be stacked against Lovejoy on paper, Edgar Carson’s squad is confident heading into Friday’s showdown with the top-ranked team in the state.

“I think the kids know the importance of this game,” Carson said. “We’re going in and playing an undefeated team. Sometimes I think we lose a little focus sometimes with our kids when they may think they are better than the other team. But I think they’ll hopefully step up to the challenge this week.”

Lovejoy struggled with its focus last week in a first round victory over Richmond Hill. The 48-28 contest was never in doubt, but the Wildcats allowed their opponents to hang around into the fourth quarter.

Attempting that against Dalton won’t end in a similar result. The Catamounts are averaging nearly 38 points per game this season while holding their opponents to 12 points per contest. Dalton’s balance on offense, led by quarterback JP Thige (1,902 yards, 19 TD) and running back Ahmaad Tanner (1,070 yards, 17 TD), is a trait Carson saw immediately while watching film.

“On film with Dalton, they are very balanced,” he said. “They don’t make very many mistakes. They can run the ball, they can throw the ball. Defensively, they are never out of position. So, we need to play our best game. I feel like if we go in we can give ourselves a chance if we limit mistakes.”

The Wildcats are hitting their stride at the right time as well. Lovejoy started the season 1-3 while first-year quarterback John Seter became acclimated with the offense. The Wildcats have won six of seven games since that start, including three in a row.

The biggest reason for Lovejoy’s turnaround is a next-man-up philosophy. The program saw a mass exodus this summer as players transferred to other schools. Those players who stayed behind have battled through the difficult start to the season and are reaping the benefits in the postseason.

“To be honest with you, going into the season with all the transfers that we had, you know, I don’t think many people gave us a chance,” said Carson. “But these kids have fought since January until now. I just think that in every game we’ve played, we’ve been battle-tested. We’ve played some very good football teams.”

A perfect example of talent emerging from obscurity took place last week in Lovejoy’s win over Richmond Hill. Freshman running back Barron Johnson rushed for three touchdowns in the second half to lead the Wildcats to victory. Lovejoy’s top offensive player, running back Zion Custis, was still getting over nagging injuries, so Johnson’s big night was important in more ways than one.

“He stepped up big this past week. We’re just glad to get him going,” Carson said of Johnson’s performance. “He does some things well and that takes some pressure of Zion. We don’t have to have him carry the load so much. They are two different backs…it’s good to have another dimension.”

Lovejoy will travel to Dalton as underdogs and with respect for the undefeated team it will face. Yet, the Wildcats were loose at practice, knowing that if they play a strong game, as they did in three-point losses to state-ranked Stockbridge and Tucker, they should have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.

“Everybody is buying in, so as long as everybody is buying in and they’re stepping up and making plays, we’ll give ourselves a chance,” said Carson.

Lovejoy and Dalton will kick off Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at Dalton High School.