APEX — Wake Forest is heading to the 4AA state championship for the second time in four years, this time as the lowest seed to ever play in a N.C. High School Athletic Association football title game.
The No. 12 Cougars won with a late field goal for the second time in as many rounds.
A 34-yard kick from Zack Coates with 5:49 left in the game gave Wake Forest a 24-23 win at No. 2 Middle Creek.
And in the case of this field goal, it was set up by another part of Wake Forests kicking game. The Cougars hurried their punt team onto the field on fourth downs and snapped it quickly while Middle Creek was hurrying players on and off the field.
Transitioning players on and off the field is something we do in practice, Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas said.
The referee threw his flag as the ball was being downed, ruling that Middle Creek had too many players on the field for the second time during one of these quick punts.
The ball was marked off 22 yards to the Mustangs 39.
The rule book states that an illegal participation penalty can be 15 yards from the spot if a player enters the field of play after the play begins (even if there are only 10 men on the field).
That set of circumstances gave Wake Forest new life.
If our players dont hustle onto the field and get set, we dont get the calls, Lucas said.
Middle Creek, which was playing in its first state semifinal, had the ball two more times to end the game. It went three-and-out on its next-to-last possession and turned the ball over on downs with less than a minute on its own 26.
There were other plays that we didnt make that we had to make, Middle Creek coach Mike Castellano said.
Making life tough for Middle Creek was sophomore defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who batted down passes, made tackles for loss and wreaked havoc.
We knew that D-line was going to be tough, but I was proud of our guys, Castellano said. I didnt think we would have as much time as we did.
Middle Creek had pulled ahead 23-21 with 10:28 to go on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Brant Grisel (30-of-48, 281 yards, 3 touchdowns) to Jay Schuller (9 catches, 104 yards). The ball was tipped by a Cougars defender, but Schuller kept his eye on the ball.
The Mustangs lined up to go for the two-point conversion, but a false start backed up the play and they kicked the extra point.
Wake Forest had the only touchdown of a wild third quarter, scoring on a 6-yard carry from Shyheem Mitchell to lead 21-16.
The Cougars Mack Moore threw his first interception of the season when Terrance White picked off a pass one play after Middle Creek fumbled on a kickoff return that followed a Mustangs safety.
After Middle Creek punter Michael Rubino pinned Wake Forest at its 1, Jamal Sweet was tackled by Brendan Weinberg in the end zone to give Middle Creek a 16-14 lead with 6:48 left in the third.
The teams were tied 14-all at halftime. Wake Forests first pass on its first drive ended in a 29-yard touchdown from Moore to Devante Reynolds.
Middle Creek had answered with two tunnel screens for touchdowns from 11 and 23 yards respectively, from Grisel to East Carolina recruit Curtis Burston (13 catches, 105 yards). Wake Forest evened it up with 9:08 before halftime on a 2-yard sneak from Moore.
Next up for the Cougars is Mallard Creek out of Charlotte, the 4AA champ from the West. They will play for the state title at 7 p.m. next Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium at N.C. State.
Similar to Wake Forests 2010 trip to the 4AA title game, when it lost 44-0 to Butler High, Mallard Creek enters the game undefeated and nationally ranked.
I gotta reflect on that experience, Lucas said. It should help some, but were going up against a powerhouse.
Wake Forest spent much of the game without star running back Bryce Love (13 carries, 57 yards), who is nursing a hamstring injury. The Cougars ran 65 times for 243 yards.
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