LUCAS — From the first snap of Friday’s ballgame, literally, the Lovejoy football team asserted its will over Denison.
A short completion from Yellow Jacket quarterback Caleb Heavner to receiver Keegan Pruitt was greeted by a heavy hit from the Leopards’ defense to force a fumble that Lovejoy senior Brian Kotecki promptly pounced on.
Six plays later, the Leopards were in the end zone on a 4-yard run by sophomore Payton Pierce, and the state’s No. 3-ranked team in Class 5A Division II was off and running. By the time Lovejoy (4-0 overall, 2-0 district) looked back, it had a 49-7 demolition to show for its homecoming game.
“Our defense has done an incredible job every game so far of setting the tone and taking care of business, and they did it again,” said Chris Ross, Lovejoy head coach. “That defense has been a spark plug for us all season.”
It was a far cry from the 2020 edition between the Leopards and Yellow Jackets, one of the cornerstone performances in Lovejoy’s season. The Leopards dug out of a 14-point hole in the fourth quarter for a 31-24 victory.
The emotions of that contest weren’t lost on Friday’s rematch, which featured some chippy play on both sides. The actual ballgame, however, was the latest in a series of resounding performances by the state-ranked Leopards in their second year under Ross.
Lovejoy spared itself any fourth-quarter heroics this time around, scoring the first 42 points of the contest and pitching a defensive shutout — Denison’s only points came on a fumble return touchdown with 3:18 to play in the fourth quarter.
It was all Lovejoy otherwise — after building that initial 7-0 lead, the Leopards struck for 21 more points in the second quarter, all involving sophomore quarterback Alexander Franklin. The first-year signal-caller turned a fourth-and-one conversion into a 15-yard touchdown run with 10:09 to play in the first half and then orchestrated two scoring drives less than two minutes apart near the end of the frame.
Lovejoy 14, Denison 0 @ 10:09/2QLeopards go for it on 4th and 1 and QB Alexander Franklin converts and then some. He scrambles 15 yards for the touchdown and a 2 score lead for Lovejoy. pic.twitter.com/BvpKl74iZK— Matt Welch (@MWelchSLM) September 18, 2021
Both saw Lovejoy attack Denison deep with Franklin finding sophomore Parker Livingstone for a 34-yard touchdown and then junior Jaxson Lavender for a 40-yard score that upped the count to 28-0 at halftime.
“[Franklin is] settling down and understanding his role with this football team,” Ross said. “I think he played a very solid game. We missed a couple we don’t normally miss, but he did a great job against a great defense. Last year, that was one of the better defensive football teams we faced and they’re all back.”
Franklin went on to throw for 253 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-23 attempts. Livingstone paced the receiving corps with six catches for 124 yards and a score, while Lavender hauled in four balls for 65 yards and a touchdown.
Lovejoy 28, Denison 0 @ :23/2QLeopards need just 23 seconds to find the end zone. Alexander Franklin goes deep and speedster Jaxson Lavender hauls in the pass for a 40 yard TD. Big-time barnstorming by the Leopards late in the 1st half. pic.twitter.com/qNAtTBLMu0— Matt Welch (@MWelchSLM) September 18, 2021
Senior Noah Naidoo (88 rushing yards) and sophomore Matthew Mainord (65 rushing yards, one touchdown) anchored the run game on a night when Lovejoy outgained Denison, 442-180.
“I’m most proud of our guys because we were very, very physical tonight. We controlled the line of scrimmage and ran the ball when we wanted to,” Ross said.
The Leopards’ defense was just as commanding. The game-opening turnover was a harbinger of things to come as Lovejoy totaled five takeaways in the victory. Three came on fumbles, including a miscue handling a punt in the Denison end zone that was subsequently recovered by junior Bennett Slaughter for a touchdown that put the Leopards up 42-0 with 7:31 to go in the fourth quarter.
Lovejoy added two turnovers on interceptions with senior Trent Rucker stifling the Denison offense’s lone trip into the red zone with a fourth-quarter pick in the end zone. Then, in the game’s waning moments, junior Gabe Joyner returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown.
The Leopards asserted themselves up front as well, routinely hounding Heavner in the pocket — including two sacks for junior Zach Bahner — and holding star running back Jadarian Price to just 40 rushing yards on the night.
“They’ve got a great running back, a great quarterback, a great receiver and just a great overall team,” Ross said. “I think our defense played a little faster and a little more physical.”
Lovejoy gets a chance to rest up during a bye week before resuming district play Oct. 1 against Prosper Rock Hill.