When Aquinas rolls up to the Georgia Dome this afternoon, the guy who most had faith that they’d get there will be waiting to greet them.
Matt LeZotte, the former Irish coach who first launched the program on this trajectory, never doubted that his former team had what it takes to be state champions. He even told them so when he announced he was leaving the private school last May to take an assistant job at Class AAAA Wayne County.
“When I stood up there in front of those guys and told them I was leaving, it was an emotional experience for all of us because I had put so much into the program and know those guys had sold out for me in the program,” LeZotte said. “I told them that day, ‘You all have the chance to win a state championship and you’ve got to work every single day toward that.’ And they sure did, every single day. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Prior to LeZotte taking over reins of the Aquinas program in 2009, the Irish didn’t have much of a tradition of success. Twice in 1971-72, Aquinas played and lost in region finals. That was followed by three decades of mostly losing seasons before the 2004 Irish qualified for the Class A playoffs for the first time, losing in the first round.
LeZotte wasn’t conceding to history when he took over a program that had back-to-back 3-7 seasons while he was an assistant. He walked the schools halls with his staff – including his eventual successor James Leonard – and openly asked boys to come out and play to help get the roster numbers up from the low 30s to the mid 40s.
“The excitement that we brought to it, we were willing to take any and everybody,” LeZotte said. “They all traveled with the team to away games and all lettered at the end of the season. They were all a part of something special. We tried to create that environment that they could have fun and be successful.”
LeZotte had a vision to turn the Irish into annual competitors.
“It started with a belief,” he said. “When I took over as head coach, I was blessed to have very good assistant coaches, James being one of them. We just believed we could compete and put our guys in a situation where they could be successful and could win. I think it trickled down to the players.”
Belief, however, would only go so far. They had to be able to back it up with strength.
“We really got serious in the weight room,” LeZotte said. “You can tell by the success of the last three years how we could compete physically with opponents where before we couldn’t.”
LeZotte traces the roots of what has made this year’s team 13-0 and ready to face Calvary Day in the Class A state championship game (2:30 p.m., Georgia Dome) to a regular season game all the way back in his first year in 2009. It was the last game of the year and the 4-5 Irish needed to win at Washington-Wilkes to avoid another losing season.
“No one thought we were gonna win and we went and beat the brakes off of Washington-Wilkes,” LeZotte said. “Our guys from that point on were like, ‘Wow, we CAN do this.’ That was the point.”
Two years later, Aquinas not only qualified for the playoffs but won two games to reach the Class A quarterfinals. The second was a 32-14 victory at Wilcox County, which hadn’t lost at home in 35 games dating back to 2006.
“When we beat Wilcox County, we became giant killers,” LeZotte said. “We handed it to them with our brand of football – we’ve got to be tough, got to be strong, got to push them around.”
The only hurdle LeZotte never got the Irish to clear was Lincoln County. The perennial Region 7-A favorites coached by Larry Campbell owned a 32-game winning streak over Aquinas dating back to 1972.
That changed this season when Leonard’s team kicked the door off the hinges with a 42-14 victory in Lincolnton. LeZotte, as he does every week, watched the game film on Hudl and was impressed.
“The past few years we expected to beat Lincoln County,” he said. “That was a good win, a dominating win. So when it was over it was them asserting themselves as a powerhouse in the state. That was big because Lincoln County never shows up with a bad team. It just shows that the hard work pays dividends and they cashed in that night.”
LeZotte has been busy with Wayne County all season, serving as running backs coach on former Lakeside coach Jody Grooms’ staff. The Yellow Jackets’ only regular season losses this year were narrowly to Region 3 powerhouse Burke County. Wayne County was eliminated in last week’s Class AAAA state semifinal to Griffin, finishing the year 11-3 and just shy of joining the Irish at the Georgia Dome this weekend.
LeZotte, 32, has no regrets about leaving behind a championship-caliber team to pursue larger career goals at a program more than twice the size.
“I accomplished a lot of what I expected and wanted to accomplish when I came down here,” he said.
But all along, LeZotte has stayed in weekly touch with Leonard and followed the Irish’s progress.
“I’m still emotionally invested in this program,” he said. “I saw those guys grow and develop from a very young stage of their lives to hard-working young men. To see their hard work pay off, there’s nothing more fulfilling for a coach who’s been with them through the whole process.”
When he left Aquinas, he knew he left the program better off than when he arrived. But it thrills him to see just how far Leonard has taken this team to fulfill the vision they had when they started in 2009.
“James has taken it to a whole ‘nother level,” LeZotte said. “He and I stay in contact and talk about stuff all the time because we’re best of friends. I still feel it going through my veins on Friday nights. I invested a lot of my time and effort into building that program and I’m just so thankful for the job that James has done taking it over and taking it the next step.”
While many of the players and all of the work ethic are the same, LeZotte sees the things Leonard has done to make the Irish a complete team that makes few mistakes and does everything well.
“It’s exciting watching them play football,” LeZotte said. “They don’t do everything the same way. They’ve changed up a lot of things that we used to do. It’s exciting to see James blossom as a coach and make it his own. It’s been great.”
Does the old coach think his former team will hoist a state championship trophy today?
“I think they’ve got a great shot,” he said. “They’re playing against a very good team. But you know what, they’re a very good team, too.”