There is no doubt that the best high school football team in the area is playing for the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA football championship on Saturday night.
Wake Forest High handled a difficult playoff bracket, knocking off Leesville Road, Southern Pines Pinecrest, Millbrook and Garner 27-13 en route to its 8 p.m., assignment against Charlotte Mallard Creek at BB&T Stadium in Winston-Salem.
On paper, the Cougars appear to have little chance. After all, Charlotte-area teams have won nine of the 12 4AA state titles since the division was started in 2002. The only exceptions were New Bern’s 28-17 win over Charlotte Independence in 2007, Richmond’s 38-35 win over Fayetteville Britt in 2008 and Greensboro Page’s 34-21 win over Garner in 2011.
Wake Forest, which had appeared so much physically stronger than other area teams in racing to the finals in 2010 and 2013, was pounded on both occasions. Matthews Butler shut out the Cougars 44-0 in 2010, and Mallard Creek beat them 59-21 last year.
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Mallard Creek has been nationally ranked this season, and its return to the title game is no surprise. Its loss was to Butler, a team the Mavericks pounded two weeks ago 56-14.
But this year’s Wake Forest club could deliver a surprise.
There may be no faster high school running back in the country than the Cougars’ Bryce Love. He broke touchdown runs of 90 yards and 52 yards in last Friday’s win over Garner.
But the biggest plus for Wake Forest may be the play of 6-foot-6, 292-pound defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence. The big junior has the ability to control the interior, and he helped throttle the Trojans’ offense.
Garner entered the game averaging close to 250 rushing yards. It managed 76 yards. The Trojans were scoring 46 points a game. Their offense netted one score.
Wake Forest’s defense is based on forcing running plays outside. To do that, the Cougars need a rock in the middle. Lawrence may be the best rock in the Class of 2016. He is a combination of being immovable and yet able to move quickly.
Love for Love: Wake Forest assistant coach Jamie Holland played in the NFL for six years after playing for the Cougars and Ohio State.
After Friday’s win, Holland was asked if Love has the potential to play in the NFL.
“He’s that good, he can be there,” Holland said. “It’s not only his physical talent, it’s also his heart. You can make a kid tough at practice, but you can’t put the heart there. It comes from within.
“He has that tough, never give up attitude. He’s something special.”
Love injured his shoulder in a quarterfinal win against Millbrook two weeks ago, but he started and played a huge role in the Cougars’ victory. Holland noted that Love showed his toughness and desire against Garner, but that the entire team had shown its desire during the last couple of weeks.
“The whole team has shown heart, like when we were down at halftime against Millbrook and in tough, tight situations against Garner,” Holland said.
No quick pick: Nyheim Hines, Garner’s outstanding running back, had planned to graduate early and enroll in college in spring, but those plans changed. He is expected to make some official visits this winter and sign a national letter of intent in spring.