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 two proud, history-rich programs.
Garner’s trip to Wake Forest will be the first time the two teams have played in a state football semifinal, although Garner has been in the semifinals in three of the last four years and Wake Forest is playing in its fifth in seven years.
It’s almost surprising it has taken this long.
“We’re looking forward to the opportunity,” said Garner coach Thurman Leach of playing the defending 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.”
When the Trojans take the field at Tony Trentini Stadium Friday night, Garner will see a team made from a similar mold to themselves.
Other than serving as a blueprint for how to be successful in the highest classification of N.C. High School Athletic Association year after year, the two teams will likely find plenty more in common with one another when looking at game film this week.
The teams have many similarities.
Championship teams tend to have strong running games and strong run defense. Both Wake Forest and Garner do.
Wake Forest averages 303.9 rushing yards per game and Garner gets 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 yields 13.6. Garner is scoring 45.8 points per game and Wake Forest is getting 42.5.
The Cougars and Trojans boast two of the stingier defenses in the area against the run. Wake Forest has allowed less than three yards per carry during a season in which it has held opponents to less than 50 yards on the ground six times.
The Cougars provide a test for the vaunted Garner rushing attack but it’s a challenge the Trojans relish and hope to pass.
“Our goal has always been states, so this is just another step on the way to states,” said Garner runner Nyheim Hines. “We’re really excited for Wake Forest. I can’t wait to watch film.”
The Trojans defense has also held opponents to less than 50 yards on the ground half a dozen times, including the best performance thus far for Garner in its third round victory over Panther Creek in which the Catamounts lost 17 yards on 25 carries.
The Garner defense is playing its best of the season and has stepped up 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 suffered a shoulder injury in the Cougars’ 28-21 third round win over Millbrook last week and Hines has carried the ball only 21 times in the last three games because of a knee bruise. Living with limited contributions from a superstar runner is something the Cougars have done before. Love was limited in last season’s playoffs after suffering a leg muscle injury that lingered. Hines has been limited in the playoffs, but should be the healthiest he’s been in the past four weeks come kick off time Friday.
The Cougars and Trojans have both received solid performances from running backs not named Hines or Love though as Collin Eaddy and Dwayne Holloway have kept the ground game moving for Garner and Dajuan Green and Devon Lawrence have done the same for Wake Forest.
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) just hope that after Friday night, they get 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.