NORCROSS -- The Georgia players from Wesleyan have to hope the Bulldogs have better luck in Jacksonville today than their old school did Friday night against the brother of Florida coach Will Muschamp. Wesleyan controlled most of the game against Lovett, coached by Mike Muschamp. But they didn't get the victory.
"Our kids deserved to win the game," Wesleyan coach Franklin Pridgen said. "They played their hearts out. I'm incredibly proud of them."
It was Lovett, though, that could celebrate an important Region 6-AA victory as the Lions made the final big play in game that seemed to be going in Wesleyan's favor until the closing seconds. Mitchell Marino caught a 37-yard bomb from Willie Candler and Grant Haley scored from a yard out with 29.1 seconds left to give Lovett the 24-21 victory.
"We have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of," Pridgen said. "We had excellent coverage on that long pass. They just made a great throw and a great catch."
The loss dropped Wesleyan to 4-5 overall and 1-2 in Region 6-AA with a final regular-season game at Greater Atlanta Christian next Friday. With a five-team region, the Wolves are in the state playoffs. But their likely first-round opponent on the road is defending state champion and No. 1-ranked Calhoun. That wasn't on the minds of Pridgen or his players after the heart-breaking loss, though.
"Our players are devastated," the coach said. "Nobody works harder than us. We didn't deserve to lose this game."
The Wolves might have had the game won earlier in the fourth quarter if a penalty called for a block in the back hadn't nullified an apparent 82-yard TD pass from Will Anderson to Jamai Jones. Lovett (4-4 and 2-0 region) held Wesleyan on downs at the 28 and drove for the winning TD.
It was a game of quick-strike plays by Lovett and costly missteps at times by the Wolves.
An interception that was dropped would have given Wesleyan a TD and a bigger lead in the third quarter. Instead, Haley broke a tackle behind the line of scrimmage on the next play and raced 75 yards for a Lovett TD.
Anderson, who was intercepted for the second time in the game on the last play, finished 19 of 28 passing for 170 yards and two scores. He also ran 11 times for 67 yards and a TD.
The Lions had last played Wesleyan in 2007, the year before the Wolves dropped down to Class A and won the state title with a roster that included present Georgia players Kyle Karempelis, Merritt Hall and David Andrews.
Wesleyan is now the smallest school in Class AA and the Wolves' have a size disadvantage in roster number and weight against many of the teams they face.
"But our hearts are as big as anyone's," Pridgen said.
Wesleyan ran 29 plays from scrimmage before Lovett got its first nearly half-way through the second quarter. But a 94-yard kickoff return for a score by Haley followed the Wolves' first TD and a Lovett field goal on the final play before halftime cut the Wesleyan lead to 14-10. The Wovles drove 83 yards in 13 plays over nearly eight minutes to open the game as Anderson -- 7-for-7 on the drive -- hit Mack in the end zone from 5 yards out. Then Wesleyan bounced back from Haley's tying return to go 78 yards in 16 plays, Christian Stark catching a 7-yard TD pass from Anderson, who was 12-for-16 in the first half.
Despite Wesleyan's early domination, it looked like Lovett might tie the game when Haley broke off a 41-yard punt return for an apparent TD near the end of the second quarter. But Lovett was called for holding and Lions had to settle for a 31-yard field goal by Brendan McGowan as time expired before halftime.
Wesleyan's Griffin Bone made a diving interception at the Lovett 48 on the first possession of the second half and Anderson scored on a sneak from a yard out to make it 21-10. But Lovett came back to pull out the victory, giving the Wolves nothing to celebrate in their final home game of the season.