Lambert's path to a region championship has always been difficult, and even though its head coach won't say it, there's a very good chance the Longhorns finally meet their goal by tonight, or next week.
“We're taking it game by game. We've got two very tough football games coming up. I'm excited, but at the same time we sure do make it hard on ourselves sometimes,” head coach Louis Daniel said.
Between the lines of that quote: a huge 17-7 win at West Forsyth last week, where the Longhorns had nine team sacks but gained barely over 100 yards of total offense. Also: a 48-40 nail-biter in Coal Mountain against North Forsyth the week before, where the Longhorns had to storm back from a halftime deficit.
The team's consistency may still be in the works, but its goals are within grasp.
Daniel's game-by-game approach is standard procedure from a head coach, but there's no doubting that Lambert is feeling good about how this season has transpired—especially compared to years past. Since the school started fielding varsity sports in 2009, nearly every other athletic team on campus has found postseason success. Meanwhile, the football team has become accustomed to the term “runner-up.”
Even in Lambert's first full varsity season the team went 8-2 in league play in Class 4A, but Chattahoochee—the eventual state champion—took the region title with a 10-0 mark. When Louis Daniel, formerly an assistant with the program, took over in 2014 he set the goal for the program to demand titles, but in the past three seasons the Longhorns have finished in second behind Alpharetta (twice) and most recently South Forsyth, which won in blowout fashion in last year's de facto championship game.
Things didn't look promising at the start of this season either. The latest reclassification from the Georgia High School Association reduced the region to just six teams, with Lambert, North, South and West Forsyth all remaining together. Speculation in the offseason was that it would be very likely each of those teams earned a win against one of the two opponents, which would lead to a mess of tie breakers not usually seen when region schedules are longer and offer more opportunity to pull away and fumble away position in the standings. Lambert also got off to a rough start, falling to 1-3 to start the year with losses to Mountain View, Cherokee and Lanier, all very tough non-region opponents.
But the Longhorns buried the theory, beating South 28-20 and West, last weekend, 17-7 to take a stranglehold of the first-place slot. All they have to do is win one of their next two games—tonight at Milton (3-5, 1-2 Region 5-7A) or, if they slip up on the road, at home in the season finale against Forsyth Central (3-4, 0-3).
Daniel has always wanted a region title, but his big-picture approach has diffused the excitement and replaced it with methodical reflection. The way he sees it, no trophy can change the fact that Lambert is still on a road it's been on many times before.
“The reason it means something is because we set a goal. We set it three years ago when I took over to earn a region title, to have the best offense in region and the best defense. Well, it turns out that's hard to do,” Daniel said. “Earning a title means a lot because it would mean meeting a goal, and that's life. These are 18-year old kids that have college ahead of them, wives ahead of them, they'll be buying houses. What we hope football teaches is that if you set a big goal you've got to also realize the amount of work that will go into it, so that's what's gratifying—and we've been so close in the past.
“With that said, no matter if we win the region or not, we still are really just earning a home playoff game. We've had home playoff games here before. We had them the last three seasons. Look at a team like Milton, they are fighting for a playoff spot right now so we've got to be prepared to get their best shot and it's going to be a really, really tough game. You've still got to take things game by game and stay focused on what's ahead.”
It's very unlikely that a three-way tie in region will occur because South (2-1) and West (2-1) will face off in the final week of the regular season. The Longhorns would own the 4-1 tie-breaker over either team, so the only scenario that they finish runner-up again is if they fall in bot