ARLINGTON — Immersed in its deepest playoff run in over a decade, the Lovejoy football team didn’t balk at the challenge posed by two-time defending state champion Aledo in Friday’s regional final. The Leopards’ high-octane offense had more success than any Bearcat opponent all season, piling up nearly 600 yards and finding the end zone six times against the state’s No. 2-ranked team in Class 5A Division II.
But for all the lumps the Aledo defense took at the hands of senior quarterback RW Rucker and the Lovejoy offense, the Bearcats got a timely lift on special teams to help weather a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit and overtake the Leopards, 52-48, from Globe Life Park. The setback dashed the Leopards’ unbeaten season, ending the year at 13-1 and in the regional finals for the first time since 2010.
“I couldn’t be prouder of these guys. Win or lose, they fight,” said Chris Ross, Lovejoy head coach. “They’re unselfish and care about each other, and that’s why I do feel like we’re one of the best teams in the state. I wish we could have played a cleaner game, but that’s football.”
Ross lauded the leadership of his seniors, calling their belief in one another “the difference in [Lovejoy’s] season.” Ross had those upperclassmen join him side-by-side during the team’s postgame scrum, praising their work and tasking the team’s returners with carrying that momentum into the head coach’s first full offseason with the Leopards.
Plenty of those seniors shined during their season finales on Friday. Rucker looked the part of the best player on as talent-rich a field as he and the Leopards have shared this season — the quarterback threw for 422 yards, ran for 115 more and totaled six touchdowns. Senior Reid Westervelt torched the Bearcats to the tune of 13 catches for 279 yards and two touchdowns, while fellow senior Luke Mayfield logged 120 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Senior Trent Robinson and the offensive line allowed just one sack all night, and seniors Blake Slaughter and Chief Collins keyed a defense that held Aledo to just 28 points through three quarters.
“I can’t even begin to say how thankful I am to coach a group like that,” Ross said of his seniors.
Aledo 14, Lovejoy 10 @ 2:50/1QRW Rucker has the Leopards in the end zone for the 1st time tonight. On 3rd down, he hits Luke Mayfield over the middle for the 13 yd TD. pic.twitter.com/YJdgjbRGgJ— Matt Welch (@MWelchSLM) January 2, 2021
That collective effort put the Leopards in an advantageous spot entering the fourth quarter, holding a 38-28 lead. Aledo conjured one last surge and outscored Lovejoy 24-10 over the final eight minutes.
The Bearcats amassed 24 of the quarter’s first 27 points, riding a pair of special teams touchdowns to sway control back in their favor — a blocked punt that was caught by defensive end Caden Anderson and returned 50 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 38-38 and later an 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Demarco Roberts that gave Aledo its first lead since the second quarter, 45-41.
“A game like that, where both teams are playing well, is going to come down to a break or two that changes the game,” Ross said. “The kick return for a touchdown and the punt block touchdown were pretty much the difference in the football game. Other than that, it was pretty much a toe-for-toe game. Sometimes that’s just how these things work.”
Lovejoy proceeded to go three-and-out for the first time since its opening series, only for Aledo to swell its advantage to 52-41 on a 29-yard touchdown run by Roberts, who spearheaded the Bearcat offense with 266 rushing yards and four total scores.
Aledo 52, Lovejoy 41 @ 2:42/4QHave a game, Demarco Roberts. The Aledo RB houses his 3rd rushing TD of the night from 29 yards out and the Bearcats have taken full command of this 4th quarter, outscoring Lovejoy 24-3. pic.twitter.com/0l9S4anobW— Matt Welch (@MWelchSLM) January 2, 2021
The Rucker-Westervelt connection hooked up once more for a 36-yard touchdown to trim the gap to 52-48 with 1:54 to go, but an onside kick recovery by Aledo gave way to a bruising rushing attack that managed to run out the remainder of the clock.
“You’ve got to keep it going. A game like that, both teams are so even and you just have to avoid the critical error,” Ross said. “Both teams know how to win, but it’s about who can avoid that critical error, whether it’s a turnover or what not. That put us in a bind on the punt, but defensively and offensively we played. Somebody had to lose.”
Lovejoy eluded those miscues during an aggressive first half.
Despite falling behind 14-3 on the strength of the Aledo ground game, Lovejoy outscored the defending champs 28-7 for the remainder of the half — finding the end zone four times in a five-drive span.
Lovejoy’s blueprint was a familiar one, mixing a quarterback keepers from Rucker with a bevy of downfield strikes. Aledo struggled to contain the Leopards’ dynamic receiving corps with Mayfield and Westervelt combining for three receiving touchdowns in the first half. Mayfield’s second score gave Lovejoy a 24-21 lead with 3:44 left in the half.
Although the Bearcats took far different approach, relying on the power running of Roberts (who scored on first-half runs of 20 and 37 yards) and the home-run playmaking of four-star phenom JoJo Earle, Lovejoy managed to draw four punts out of the Bearcats in the first half.
The last came with just 2:15 left in the second quarter — more than enough time for Rucker and Co. to go to work. The quarterback found Westervelt, who tallied nine catches for 157 yards in the first half alone, for a 43-yard gain down the sideline, but Aledo stood firm to lure the Leopards into fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line with 15 seconds to play.
Lovejoy eschewed the field goal try and instead drew up a look that caught the Bearcats napping — Rucker initially rolled to his right, all while younger brother and junior Trent Rucker, lined up at tight end on the left side of the formation, snuck behind the Aledo defense and was all alone for a 2-yard touchdown reception that granted the Leopards a 31-21 advantage at the break.
“Those guys finished the year averaging right around 50 points per game and broke just about every school record on offense,” Ross said. “Reid came into the game, I think, 11th all-time in Texas high school football history for touchdowns in a season and added to that. Ralph ends his season with 48 or 49 touchdown passes. It’s unbelievable. We had starters out and other guys stepped up.”
Lovejoy 31, Aledo 21 @ :10/2QLeopards are playing for keeps! They go for it on 4th down and completely fool the Aledo defense. RW Rucker to Trent Rucker, 2 yd TD. Massive play just before halftime with Lovejoy set to receive the 3Q kick. pic.twitter.com/yIEGoZ4Fcs— Matt Welch (@MWelchSLM) January 2, 2021