Playing at Duke University will be the only thing new to Wake Forest High School.
The Cougars, winners of 44 straight games, will be making their third consecutive trip to the 4AA NCHSAA title game. Wake Forest won it all at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh in 2016 and BB&T Field in Winston-Salem last year.
After defeating Pinecrest 49-7 in the 4AA East Regional, Wake Forest will play in Durham for the first time, one of few first for this team that hasn’t lost a game in three years and have dominated Eastern North Carolina football. The Cougars will take on Vance High School (13-1), winners over Myers Park, 21-13, in the 4AA West Regional.
While playing at Wallace-Wade Stadium will be a new feeling, winning titles in the east and advancing to championships never gets old.
“I think it gets old for the people outside of the program,” Cougars’ head coach Reggie Lucas said. “We’re coaching these kids and we’re coaching them up to be successful on Friday night. When we stop wanting to be successful, that’s when I need to get out of this.”
This group came into the season with as much doubt as any Wake Forest team under Lucas. Even after winning two titles in a row, and having played in five championship games and with nine conference titles, there were still doubters out there, people who thought this would be the season the Cougars fell from the top of the mountain.
“Honestly, all the talk, it motivated us,” senior Demarcus Jones said. “That just kept us striving to fill those shoes. It motivated us.”
The first quarter was like a heavyweight boxing match, with both teams throwing jabs, feeling each other out for 12 minutes. The Cougars ran 15 plays and couldn’t produce any points, and just one first day.
The lone first down came when the Patriots were flagged for being off sides. Jones didn’t hold any punches, saying Wake Forest started the game by playing “soft.”
“We just kept doing what we were supposed to do,” Jones said. “I think they (Pinecrest) had more energy and more emotion. We had to come back with the same energy.”
The Wake Forest defense was just as stout, not surrendering any points, and just 29 yards on 19 plays. The Cougars also forced an interception when Mateo Sudipo picked off a pass on the
Patriots third drive of the game. That turnover didn’t produce any points, but Wake Forest wasted little time getting on the board in the second quarter.
The Cougars took their opening drive of the second 80 yards in eight plays, capped off with a 1-yard run by Sudipo to make it 7-0 with 8:58 showing on the clock in the second quarter.
The Wake Forest defense got in on the scoring act on the next drive. Pinecrest threw a lateral that hit the ground and Cougars’ defensive back Chance Smith made a heads up play, scooping up the football and rushing 19-yards untouched for the score, putting the Cougars up 14-0. That fired up the Wake Forest defense, who stopped the Patriots cold on 4th and 2, forcing a turnover on downs. The Cougars’ defense was in championship form in the second, holding Pinecrest to 36 yards on 12 plays.
Pinecrest cornerback Shymeik Reaves picked off Sudipo on the next drive, but Wake Forest got the ball back with plenty of time to score before the half. It took just three plays for Sudipo to connect with Traveon Kenion, who beat his defender with a double move that led to a 56-yard score, giving the Cougars a 21-0 lead and halftime. Pinecrest showed life to start the second half, forcing the Cougars to punt on their opening drive, and converting a 4th and 1 when Ben Garbark broke for a 56-yard score.
Wake Forest would answer, scoring in five plays when Keishmund Rodgers went in from 15 yards out.
By the time Khalil Watson blocked a punt in the fourth quarter, the Eastern Regional trophies were making their way to the sidelines. Watson’s punt block led to a Maquell Haywood 8-yard score, pushing the lead to 35-7 with 9:25 remaining. Sudipo picked off his second pass with 8:07 remaining, become the rare player to run for a score, throw for a score and pick off two passes in one game.
“I’m always having the best time of my life,” Sudipo said about his big game. “I’m always having a great time.”
Sudipo’s second interception led to Haywood’s second score of the fourth quarter, making it 42-7. The final score of the evening was a short run by Jones, who said the feeling of playing for a state championship never gets old.
“It’s always a new feeling, a rebirth,” Jones said. “Getting back to the state championship is the same feeling.”
Lucas said the outside doubt will continue considering the Cougars will be playing another team from the Charlotte area. Wake Forest lost their first three state championship games to Charlotte-based teams - Butler and twice to Mallard Creek - before defeating Page in 2016, and knocking off Mallard Creek last season to prove there was some talent in the east. But even after winning 44 straight games and two titles, the Cougars will have to show the state they are capable of knocking off a Charlotte area team again. But that’s next week. For now it’s time to enjoy another successful year of defending the east.
“You have to credit the guys who play for Wake Forest High School,” Lucas said. “They have done an awesome job of staying focus week in and week out. I think that’s why we are able to be successful.”