Wake Forest Highs last trip to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA football championship was a big disappointment to senior linebacker Norman Cade.
He had made the varsity as a 5-foot-8, 140-pound freshman defensive back, but missed the title game with a sprained meniscus.
I wasnt going to play anyway, he said. I was just this little freshman, but not being with the team was a disappointment. From that day until now, my goal was to go back to the finals.
Cade, now a 5-10, 185-pound outside linebacker and a stalwart of the defense, will reach that goal Saturday when Wake Forest (12-3) plays Charlotte Mallard Creek (15-0) in the 4AA final at N.C. States Carter-Finley Stadium at 7 p.m.
The Cougars are pretty big underdogs against Mallard Creek, which has been ranked among the states best teams since the preseason. Teams from western North Carolina, often Charlotte-area teams, have dominated the 4AA final.
Cade is comfortable with his team, though.
Winning is doable, he said. We know what we have to do.
Wake Forests season has been like a ride on Space Mountain at Disney World thrills, unexpected turns, sudden dips, hurtling forward without being sure if an ascent or descent is ahead.
A real roller coaster ride, Cade said.
Big highs came with a win at Wilmington Hoggard (33-23) and against Millbrook (31-25). Lows were losses to Wakefield (32-26), Leesville Road (21-19) and Sanderson (14-10).
The playoffs have been one test after another. The Cougars had a defensive win at Southern Pines Pinecrest (17-10) and narrowly dodged elimination when Millbrook missed a field goal in the third overtime of a 27-24 four-overtime win. A week ago, the Cougars nipped Middle Creek 24-23.
The entire season has seemed to be one critical play after another. Coach Reggie Lucas said he almost laughs now when he hears someone say it will take the Cougars best game of the season to defeat the Mavericks.
We havent been holding anything back. Weve had to play our best game of the season the last four weeks and for about half of our schedule, Lucas said. Were playing as hard as we can.
It is like when someone asks me what were doing different because it is the state finals. Nothing. We prepare and practice as well as we can every week. If there was something extra we could do, we would have been doing it already.
The past two weeks were intense. Wake Forests Zach Coates kicked a 29-yard field goal at the end of the fourth overtime for the win against Millbrook in the third round. Coates kicked a 34-yard field goal for the winning points in the win against Middle Creek.
Cade will play a key role in Saturdays title game. He is the clubs leading tackler and leads with four sacks, but the defensive scheme isnt designed for a handful of players to make the bulk of the tackles. One of his biggest roles is to force runners back to the inside, where there should be more defenders.
The Cougars have held 10 opponents to less than 150 yards rushing and give up an average 109 yards rushing and 17.2 points per game.
Mallard Creek averages 50.5 points and has scored 56 or more in three of four playoff games. Lawrence Pittman ran for 315 yards and four touchdowns in last weeks 56-14 win against Matthews Butler.
The last time Wake Forest reached the final, the night Cade was hobbling around, the Cougars were pounded by Butler 44-0.
Mallard Creek might be as impressive as the Butler club, whose nucleus won 4AA titles in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
But their kids are the same ages as our kids, Lucas said. Mallard Creek is a high school football team, an outstanding high school football team. But we earned our way here. We are coming out of a conference that had some great teams. Weve played outstanding high school teams before.