Lovejoy Football

Lovejoy seniors Ralph Rucker, top, and Isaiah Smith have had plenty to celebrate this season as the Leopards carry an unbeaten record into Friday’s high-profile matchup against Frisco.

Amid a year chalked in distractions, Lovejoy head football coach Chris Ross made it a point upon arriving to campus that his Leopards were going to sprint to the starting line this season.

They haven’t slowed down since, racing out to the program’s best start since 2012 and riding plenty of momentum into Friday’s battle for first place in District 7-5A Division II against Frisco.

“We told our guys that the ones who get off to a fast start this season are the ones who handle the offseason, the COVID, the school stoppage, everything else,” Ross said. “Our goal was to sprint to the starting line and our guys did that. I think a huge reason for our big start was our maturity and leadership this summer and through August.”

Like all high school football programs playing through the pandemic, getting to this point required weathering plenty of adversity. In Lovejoy’s case, Ross wasn’t even on campus for two weeks before school shut down back in March.

“I was still learning names and then had to meet people via Zoom before I got to be around them in person,” Ross said.

Building a culture and navigating the offseason under those circumstances made for a far different transition for Ross than at any prior stop in his coaching career, but the results haven’t strayed off course. Nothing about Lovejoy’s 7-0 start is a surprise for Ross, who joined the program after a stint at Red Oak where he inherited a 2-8 squad and went a combined 20-4 over two seasons.

“We’ve got some really good leaders on this football team and we know we have a solid group,” Ross said. “We go into any game we play expecting to win. I am pleased with how well they came together and how hard they’re working for each other. We’re right where we feel we should be.”

That includes scoring the ball at a rate never before seen in Lovejoy’s history. The Leopards are averaging 53.3 points per game this season — one of only three teams in the area at the 5A level eclipsing the 50-point threshold. They’ve scored at least 48 points in all but one game and have already matched their total scoring output from last season (373) in just seven games.

Ross attributes that success to a willingness to balance the pass and run, plus a feeling that the Leopards can deploy both no matter the down. Having the personnel to carry out that vision helps, and Lovejoy certainly isn’t lacking in that capacity either.

Senior quarterback RW Rucker ranks among the area’s top passers with 1,668 yards and 22 touchdowns through the air on top of just two interceptions thrown. His top target, senior Reid Westervelt, is tops among the Metroplex’s 5A pass-catchers with 850 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Although the run game’s depth has been tested, Lovejoy has continued to produce with senior Isaiah Smith and freshman Matthew Mainord stepping up in recent weeks.

“Everybody is a moment away from being the starter and you’re a moment away from being out 14 days, whether you’re sick or not,” Ross said. “I tell the kids that there’s no varsity and JV — it’s first string, second string, third string and so on. It’s Lovejoy, and everyone in the room has to be ready to contribute.”

Defensively, Ross lauded the work of his inside linebacker corps, where junior Philip Joest and senior Blake Slaughter have shined, as well as the leadership of senior Chief Collins and the Lovejoy secondary.

“Defensively, what we’re doing is a great job of getting a lot of hats to the football,” Ross said.

Within the team’s 7-0 start is an average margin of victory of 36.1 points per game. Only once have the Leopards been in a ballgame decided by single digits — a pivotal point in the team’s trajectory in showing it’s capable of playing from behind in a 31-24 comeback win at Denison. Lovejoy trailed 24-10 in the fourth quarter before mounting a 21-point surge to close out the contest.

“That was the first time that had happened all year long. Sometimes you have to beat a great team when you’re not playing your best and I felt like our guys were able to do that,” Ross said. “We had some mistakes early that we hadn’t made up to that point — dropped balls and missed tackles — and some missed opportunities. But the guys never stopped believing that they’d find a way to win the game. 

“Their mental toughness was a key factor in winning that game.”

The Leopards will likely have to channel that fortitude at some point Friday against a Frisco team ranked No. 5 in the state and sporting a defense playing every bit as well as Lovejoy’s offense. The Raccoons are holding opponents to just 9.0 points per game, yet to surrender so much as 20 points in a single game.

Something has to give at 7 p.m. Friday when Lovejoy and Frisco kick off from Frisco ISD Memorial Stadium.

“I like where we’re at right now. These guys believe in each other and what we’re doing,” Ross said. “We have great leaders and great teammates and as long as they keep that up and enjoy the process of improving, we’ll be a solid football team.

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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