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HAMMOCK: Lanier football ready to take next step

There are plenty of milestones, dates and noteworthy moments for new, growing programs. Sept. 28, 2012 was one of those for Lanier’s football players.

In their first varsity season, they went head-to-head with talented Monroe Area that night and even got an early lead. They lost it, fought back late and finished the evening with a respectable loss, 33-20 to a team that entered averaging 56 points.

Monroe Area finished 12-2 last year and lost in the Class AAAA semifinals to eventual state champion Sandy Creek, so Lanier hung tough with a Final Four team. Not bad for a team playing its second-ever region game.

“I think for our kids, that was a moment where they realized they can play the game, too,” Lanier head coach Billy Wells said. “At halftime, our kids realized they were in a football game. It was certainly a moment where our kids grew up.”

The moral victory was nice, but now it’s time for the Longhorns to take the next step.

Though he’s proud of his team’s fight last year against Monroe Area, Wells is quick to point out that the powerful Hurricanes still won the game. The narrow loss was a theme last year for Lanier, which missed the playoffs because it lost four region games in close fashion. It lost to Eastside by six, Chestatee by seven in overtime and Stephens County by nine — all three of those teams won seven or more games and made the playoffs.

The Longhorns can make the playoffs this season by turning one, or hopefully all, of those close games in their favor. They haven’t played a close contest yet this season, rolling to a 4-0 record with commanding victories over Apalachee (42-14), Oconee County (24-7), Franklin County (27-0) and Madison County (34-8). Of those, only Oconee was at home.

Road-tested Lanier now gets a showcase game Friday, with a chance to show its improvements on the road against Monroe Area, ranked fifth in AAAA. Like the Longhorns, Monroe Area is 4-0 and tied for first place in Region 8-AAAA.

If Lanier truly is a playoff team, one with an eye on a region title, it will find out Friday night in a game that promises to be another milestone night, another learning experience for a young and rapidly improving program.

“It’s good for our program to be in a game like this,” said Wells, who played in showcase games regularly in the past during his time at Collins Hill. “In our second year of varsity football, to be involved in a game of importance is great for our program. We’re excited about it and it’s not just us. The community is excited, too.”

Will Hammock can be reached via email at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.