When the two most consistent 4A football powers in the Triangle meet Friday night in the 4AA Eastern Regional championship game, the stage will be nothing new for the proud, history-rich programs, but it will be the first time Garner and Wake Forest will have played in a state semifinal.
Garner has been in the semifinals three of the past four years and Wake Forest is playing in its fifth in seven years.
It’s almost surprising it has taken this long.
“When we’ve made our runs, it seems like Garner has lost in the third round and when Garner has been on a run, we’ve lost in the earlier rounds,” said Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas. “We have the greatest respect for the Garner program.”
Garner coach Thurman Leach said playing Wake Forest will be a challenge.
“We’re looking forward to the opportunity,” Leach said of playing the 2013 regional champions. “If it’s what supposed to be, it’s what it’s supposed to be. We’ll be there bright and early next Friday and be ready to strap it on tight.”
The teams have many similarities.
Championship teams tend to have strong running games and strong run defense. Wake Forest and Garner do.
Wake Forest averages 303.9 rushing yards per game and Garner 267.9. Each has held six opponents to 50 yards or less on the ground.
Wake Forest allows 13.7 points per game and Garner 13.6. Garner is scoring 45.8 points per game and Wake Forest 42.5.
“Our goal has always been states, so this is just another step on the way to states,” said Garner running back Nyheim Hines. “We’re really excited for Wake Forest. I can’t wait to watch film.”
The Garner defense is playing its best of the season as Hines has been nursing a knee injury. The Trojans’ defense and special teams have combined to force 12 turnovers in three playoff games.
“We didn’t peak early; we’re peaking at the right time,” Hines said. “We’re having great team play. The special teams and the defense have played great all throughout the playoffs and all throughout the season, so it’s nothing new now.”
Both teams are led by highly skilled and highly recruited running backs, Hines and Wake Forest’s Bryce Love. Hines has run for 2,286 yards and 38 touchdowns. Love has 1,845 and 31 scores.
Each has some physical questions.
Love injured a shoulder during the 28-21 third-round win Friday against Millbrook, and Hines has carried the ball only 21 times during the past three games because of a knee bruise.
Garner knows it will face its toughest test against the Cougars (14-0).
“It’s a good opportunity for us to work even harder because they have a good running back,” Garner defensive standout Raekwon Britton said. “As a unit, we’ve just got to keep working and having fun when we’re playing together.
“There’s no holding back on the field because we don’t know when it’s our last 48 minutes on the field together.”
The Trojans (13-1) hope that after Friday night, they will have 48 more minutes to prove themselves.
“We’ve got an opportunity,” said Leach. “We’re just going to seize that moment and do the best that we can.”
D. Clay Best contributed.