Lovejoy opens the Class 5A playoffs against Sulpher Springs Friday. 

The Lovejoy football team is peaking at the exact right time.

A dismal start to the 2017 season gave way to five straight victories to close out District 15-5A play, and not only did the Leopards qualify for the playoffs, but they grabbed the No. 3 seed and a date with Sulphur Springs in the Class 5A Division II bi-district playoff round.

The Leopards play at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Sulphur Springs, but at this point, even playing in a hostile environment can’t douse Lovejoy’s momentum.

Considering the Leopards began the season with blowout losses to Argyle, Lone Star and Wakeland – games they lost by combined score of 115-38 – then lost their first two district games to Highland Park and West Mesquite by combined score of 80-17, optimism was running low on the Lovejoy sideline. Add in early-season injuries to junior quarterback Carson Collins and junior running back Jahi Rainey, and the Leopards were floundering.

But Collins and Rainey quickly got healthy, Lovejoy dominated Forney at home, and head coach Todd Ford released his secret weapon: his star linebacker, senior Bumper Pool, at running back.

Against Forney, Pool carried the ball one time for a 1-yard gain. His bruising style of running immediately caught Ford’s eye, and in the next game, a Lovejoy win over Wylie East, Pool scored the eventual game-winning touchdown on a 3-yard dive with two minutes remaining.

With Pool a threat in the backfield alongside a healthy Rainey, and Collins back to full strength, Lovejoy rattled off wins against North Forney, Mesquite Poteet and Royse City to close district with a 5-2 record. During their five-game winning streak, the Leopards scored a robust 210 points.

All of this without yet mentioning the team’s best offensive player in wide receiver Chase Van Wagoner, a TCU commit that has 824 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Along with Jacob Terwilliger, he of the team-leading eight touchdown receptions, Collins has a strong wide receiver unit to look to.

“I think any coach across the state of Texas would tell you it’s hard to compete when you lose a couple of key guys [to injury] like we did,” Ford said. “But we never panicked. We were playing some unbelievable competition to start the season, but we always knew we were a good football team. It was just about us putting it together in all three phases of the game.”

Sulphur Springs enters Friday’s playoff game in a similar state, having won three in a row after losing its first four district games. The Wildcats’ defense has been solid in those four wins, giving up an average of only nine points per game. On offense, quarterback Ryan Humphries has a modest 11 touchdown passes, but the bell cow of that unit is running back Larry Pryor, who has 1,374 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns.

“First and foremost, they’re a well-coached team,” Ford said. “That’s evident when you watch them play. They want to pound you on the ground with their running backs and then hit you with some play-action passes. So, we’ve got to be sound against the run while also be on the lookout for the deep ball.”

Sulphur Springs’ has some playmakers on the defensive side of the ball: Junior Dee Dugan has 12 tackles for loss and nine sacks, and Derrick Weeks has another seven sacks. Cain Cody and Carson Hicks have combined for 12 sacks between them, as well.

“At this point of the year, in the playoffs, every team is quality,” Ford said. “We just need to focus and keep playing the way we’ve been playing lately, though, and I think we’ll be alright.”

For continued coverage of the local sports scene, follow @timothyglaze on Twitter.

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