This isn’t a small town anymore.
But when it comes to high school football, Wake Forest still has small-town pride – the kind that draws hundreds of fans to Friday night games and rallies the community when a state title is in sight.
The Wake Forest High School football team will take on Greensboro’s Page High School for the largest-division championship Saturday afternoon at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. The Cougars are used to being in the spotlight – this is their fourth trip to the state title match-up since 2010 – but the program has never won the big game.
These kids are good at what they do, which makes it easy for the community to love them. But the pride runs deeper, through decades of history in a fast-growing town.
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“Our community has had our back forever,” said Devon Lawrence, a junior running back. “Even when we lose, they’ve had our back.
“I don’t believe every team has that community like we have,” Lawrence continued. “And honestly, it’s just a blessing.”
About 39,000 people live in Wake Forest, roughly 17 miles north of downtown Raleigh. In 1990, the town had a population of about 5,600.
Home to Wake Forest College until the school left for Winston-Salem in 1956 and later grew into a university, Wake Forest was merely a blip on the railroad map. The first industry to come to town in the late 19th century was a textile mill.
Like other towns on the outer edges of Wake County, Wake Forest has been transformed by Raleigh’s growth. Its old town center is now surrounded by new subdivisions filled with families who aren’t from here.
A strong community spirit – and football – connect the old and new.
“I think a lot of people move here because of the small-town feel,” said Lance Bradley, president of the Wake Forest High School Athletic Booster Club. “They like the pace of life, they like the size.”
Friday Night on White, a monthly downtown concert series from April through September, drew an average of 7,000 to 8,000 people. The community came together this summer to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Shorty’s Famous Hot Dogs downtown.
On Dec. 7, the town hosted the 68th annual Wake Forest Community Christmas Dinner at The Forks Cafeteria.
For decades, Wake Forest High was the only high school in town. The school’s current campus opened in the late 1950s, and the football team plays in Trentini Stadium, which was home to the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest College.
Rapid growth brought the need for more high schools. Wakefield High opened in North Raleigh in 2000, followed by Heritage High in Wake Forest in 2010. Both schools are about 5 miles from Wake Forest High School.
Rolesville High opened in 2013, about 10 miles away.
Together, the four schools enroll about 8,000 students. But there’s no doubt the town’s original school is special. And it has a history of graduating top-notch football players.
“There’s a standard to uphold,” said Bryce Love, who helped lead the team to the state championship game in 2013 and 2014. He’s now a sophomore running back for Stanford University’s football team.
Love grew up in Wake Forest and followed his older brother into the school’s football program. He said it’s clear to him now how much the school “molds you as a person.”
Finding an identity
As Wake County continues to grow, new high schools face the challenge of creating a sense of community.
When South Garner High School officially opens in the fall of 2018, it will likely pull students who live in several towns.
Middle Creek High, whose football team fell to Wake Forest in the playoffs, has students from Cary, Apex, Garner and beyond.
In Wake Forest, a sense of community already exists.
“It’s the town where they grew up, and I think that makes a big difference,” said Mike Joyner, athletics director at Wake Forest High.
Grady Stephens, 74, graduated from Wake Forest High in 1961 and went on to teach there for years. Now he works a couple days a week at B&W Hardware Company, which dates back to 1949.
Stephens said he never thought the town of Wake Forest would get so big. He’s happy there’s more to do in his town, but the traffic jams irk him.
Reality hit when he stepped onto his front porch on Purnell Road last summer. Not so long ago, he said, few cars traveled the road, which meanders through the countryside outside the town.
“I took my glass of tea and counted 393 cars in one hour,” he said.
But new residents shop at B&W, and they go to Shorty’s. Owner Chris Joyner, a Wake Forest High graduate, said growth has been good for business.
“It’s nice to have a good rivalry,” he said of the new schools. “We encourage them all to come up and eat at Shorty’s – no matter what school you go to.”
On Saturday, he will be pulling for Cougar Nation. So will Mayor Vivian Jones.
When Wake Forest and Heritage met in the football playoffs this year, she considered spending half the game on one side of the stadium and half on the other. But tradition won her over. Her children graduated from Wake Forest High.
“To be honest about it,” she said with a laugh, “I found myself cheering for Wake Forest.”
Staff writer Jonathan Alexander contributed.