OAKWOOD — In just six seasons, Tony Lotti built West Hall football into a consistent force in northeast Georgia.
Now he hopes to do the same for Apalachee.
Lotti -- who led the Spartans to their first and only region championship (2014), their second state playoff win in program history, and five straight state playoff appearances -- announced on Wednesday that he is leaving Oakwood to take over the Wildcats program in Region 8-AAAAAA.
"I wasn't looking to leave, but I just had the feeling God was pointing me to make a move again. The opportunity to be here (West Hall) meant a lot, and I won't say goodbye. I will still talk with the kids I coached and the people here," Lotti said. "We built a program here people could be proud of."
Indeed, West Hall had not posted a winning campaign in the nine seasons prior to Lotti's arrival and had undergone four coaching changes between 2003-07. Upon his arrival from Woodland High in Henry County, Lotti set about changing that and went from 3-7 his first season to 6-5 with the school's first playoff appearance in a decade in 2013. Much of that squad returned and formed the base for West Hall's 2014 team that went 9-2 and captured the Region 7-AAA title.
Lotti also led the Spartans through their growth from Class AAA to AAAA, making back-to-back state appearances, including the program's second-ever state playoff win, upsetting Troup on the road in the first round of 2015 playoffs. It was the West Hall football's first state victory since 2000.
A young 2017 Spartans team went 5-6, finishing fourth in Region 7-AAAA against a schedule that featured eight opponents that reached the state playoffs, including three state finalists (Rabun County, Blessed Trinity and Marist).
"We won some games people didn't think we could," Lotti said. "I'll never forget that first team; we had 23 kids in the program when I got here. That first senior class was in kindergarten the last time we'd made the playoffs, and I think they'd only been to the playoffs four times in 25 years before we got back in (in 2013). But there are such good people here, and the kids kept believing in working hard. I think the precedent's been set, and they've taken it places they've never been before. And we did it in two different classifications. I think when people saw we were moving to Class AAAA they were like, 'well, that's the end of that.' But our guys kept working and did some incredible things."
West Hall High School Principal Scott Justus thanked Lotti for his accomplishments and says he wants the Spartans next coach to have many of the same characteristics.
"He's done right by the kids, been a great teacher and become a great friend to me," Justus said. "Unfortunately it's the nature of the beast, but Tony felt it was time, and we wish him all the best. When I hired him [Justus was West Hall athletic director at the time] I said give me three to five years, and we'll go some incredible places, and we've done that. Now it's about finding another hard worker that will build relationships and mold and develop our kids, and I think we can do that. I'm on it right now."
Lotti hopes to lead the Wildcats on a similar journey.
Recent seasons have seen Apalachee struggle on the gridiron, and after reaching the Class AAAA quarterfinals in 2009, the Wildcats have posted just one winning mark since (6-4 in 2010). Apalachee has just four wins combined over the last five seasons, including a 1-9 mark in 2017.
"It's going to be a lot of hard work, but I'm excited to meet those people and grow my family," Lotti said. "There are lots of similarities there with West Hall, including a top-notch administration. And they've got a good vision. I think the guys there want to win, and I'm anxious to meet them and start building relationships."
Lotti says his formula will remain rooted in the principals he brought to West Hall, Woodland and his first job at Union Grove.
"I'm going to show them my heart. My core thing is do right and right follows," Lotti said. "You can't fool people. They know if you care or not. And there's no greater responsibility as a coach, and no greater honor than to be a coach and someone trusts you with their child; I will always be aware of that."
He added that he has not settled on a style of base offense or defense yet for the Wildcats and that he will shape his team based on its attributes.
"I'll take a look at what our strengths are and choose what will work best for the kids in the program," Lotti said. "We're going to do like I want all my teams do, fight hard, never quit but do it with class. This is where we're going, and I'm excited about it."
Justus too sees continued potential for his school and program at West Hall.
"I think it's a great job and a great atmosphere; we've been to the playoffs five years in a row. We understand the region is difficult [Region 7-AAAA in 2018-2020 will include Blessed Trinity, Chestatee, Denmark, Flowery Branch, Marist, and White County] and that we've got two private schools in there with us. But we're going to play the hand we're dealt, and we're going to find a coach that's not intimidated by that and wants to push our kids to keep getting better," said Justus, whose school recently completed a fieldhouse construction project. "We want to keep growing this program. I don't want to take any steps back, no matter how far we've come. We're going to find someone that's student-driven and is a great teacher, because without an education no one is going to be successful. We're also going to get someone that's a hard worker and is a good fit for us. Our players deserve it, our students deserve it and our community deserves it."