They’ve finally done it.
For Wake Forest and its coach, Reggie Lucas, the fourth trip was the charm as the Cougars won their first N.C. High School Athletic Association in four attempts since 2010, trouncing Greensboro’s Page High 29-0 on Saturday.
“It’s a great feeling, obviously. The difference is how our kids played,” Lucas said. “The way they approached the game with confidence, (they) came in feeling like they had a chance.”
Not only did the championship put a mark in the Wake Forest (16-0) history books, but also one for Wake County, becoming the first WCPSS school to win a football state title since Garner did in 1987.
Darius Hodge, an N.C. State recruit who won MVP, spearheaded Wake Forest’s defense that shut out its opposition six times before the championship game, making his presence felt immediately. He blocked a Page (14-2) punt on the opening drive, setting up Jaden McKenzie for a 10-yard return score and a quick 7-0 lead only 1:18 into the game.
Wake Forest’s offense kept the momentum rolling, driving 59 yards on its opening drive to set up Devon Lawrence for a 3-yard touchdown run. A 31-yard connection between Chris James and Lex Goodwin on third down put the Cougars in the red zone to set up the score.
When the Cougars had to punt on its ensuing offensive possession, the defense stepped up again as Jake Campbell – Wake Forest’s Sportsmanship Award winner – picked off Page quarterback Will Jones, giving the offense a 10-yard field to work with as the first quarter came to a close.
Page, who entered the game averaging 416.4 yards per game, was held to 18 yards in the first quarter (1.64 yards per offensive play), largely due to the play of Hodge, who had nine of his 17 tackles in the first half.
“(Page) runs a spread offense, and we have a physical defense. I mean, they’re not going across the middle and catch the ball with a guy like Darius,” Lucas said. “We didn’t want to lose (Hodge) in the defense by blitzing him all the time … We wanted him in that area where they were going to catch the ball.”
Wake Forest consistently pressured Jones despite rushing just three players on the majority of passing downs.
Christopher Vidal’s 22-yard field goal pushed Wake Forest’s lead to 16-0 early in the second period.
Hodge, despite only playing on the defensive side of the ball, continued to be the offense’s best friend. After laying the lumber to force an incompletion on second down, he blocked his second punt, giving the Cougars possession at the Pirates’ 21-yard line.
“(That hit) amped me up pretty well,” Hodge said, “I felt him on my shoulder, and I just had to finish him off.”
Lawrence punched in his second 3-yard score, this time out of the Wildcat formation, to make it 23-0 with 8:18 to go in the second quarter.
Page advanced into Wake Forest territory in the final minutes of the half, but a Seth Williams interception put the Pirates – who had only eight turnovers through the air before Saturday – at minus-4 in turnover differential.
Wake Forest led 23-0 at halftime.
The Pirates’ offense began the second half the same way it ended the first, picking up momentum before another interception by Williams, who earned defensive MVP honors.
Wake Forest and its prolific run game struggled to find open space to open the second half, but Vidal pinned Page at its own 10- and 1-yard lines on his first two punts of the half, forcing the Pirates to work deep in their own territory.
If there was any doubt to who would take home the game’s offensive MVP award, Lawrence put it to bed, hitting Goodwin for a 37-yard score on a running back pass with 10:08 to go that stretched Page’s deficit to 29-0.
Lawrence, who hadn’t thrown the ball in any other game during the season, said he wasn’t nervous when the call came in.
“I was confident,” Lawrence said. “I just threw it down the field.”
On the very next offensive play for Page, John Jiles picked off a pass to allow the Cougars to continue to run out the clock in front of an ecstatic crowd that filled up nearly the entire lower bowl behind their sideline.
Despite the fact the Cougars were bounced out of the playoffs by Page – who was in the eastern bracket – in the second round of the playoffs last year, Lawrence, who had 91 yards on the ground and three total touchdowns, said his team never felt like underdogs.
“Yeah, people did doubt us coming into the game … because of what happened last year,” he said. “We felt like we matched up well.”
Wake Forest became only the second school to have a shutout in the 4AA title game and the first to do so since Butler in 2010. Page finished with 142 yards of total offense.