Dexter Lawrence called it a tease.
His Wake Forest Cougars advanced to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA championship for the third time in five years a season ago. It was the second straight trip for Lawrence, a senior defensive tackle who is among the nation’s top-ranked recruits of the 2016 class.
Only Charlotte’s Mallard Creek stood in their way of history.
If Wake Forest could have gotten over the hump in any of its appearances, it would have been the first championship in the program’s history.
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Should’ve. Could’ve. Would’ve.
The fact is, last year’s title game miscues are simply old news to the Cougars, who have a new attitude.
Mallard Creek won 25-14, handing Wake Forest its only loss.
“I think we just need to stay focused, so that won’t happen to us again” senior running back Shyheem Mitchell said. “That’s a bad feeling.”
The Cougars swept the Cap-8 and allowed just 14.3 points a game behind a line that anchored the defense.
Though the Cougars return without four-star running back Bryce Love, who signed with Stanford, those remaining have kicked their focus into high gear. The commitment from Wake Forest players didn’t start in 2010 – the program’s first championship appearance – coach Reggie Lucas said the seeds were planted long before then.
“I want to say it started all the way in 2005, when really the program first started,” said Lucas, who graduated from Wake Forest-Rolesville in 1989. “In 2005, it seemed like our numbers really grew at the school. We went from 1,400 kids to 1,900 kids, so we had another 500 to pick from. Your numbers in football really went up. We had kids in the weight room, and that kind of changed it.”
Having back-to-back hot recruits hasn’t hurt, either.
Love was the sixth-ranked all-purpose back last year, according to 247Sports.
Lawrence hasn’t decided on a college, but he has unlimited options. All three Triangle ACC schools have offerd him, along with SEC powerhouse Alabama and defending national champion Ohio State. 247Sports says Florida is the favorite to land him.
He knows this is his final chance in high school. He and his younger brother, Devon, a sophomore running back, won a recreation league football championship together in middle school, and the brothers are hoping to repeat history.
Dexter Lawence had 55 tackles last season. Though most prominent, he is just one piece of a formidable line.
Junior defensive lineman Xach Gill is 6-foot-5, 280 pounds and also plays a valuable role.
“That’s two big guys you have,” Lucas said. “The other two guys we have up there aren’t small.”
In a recent practice devoid of several seniors, the underclassmen roared with intensity.
This season, to reach their goal, Lucas said he expects a total team effort, especially with the absence of Love. The 5-10 speedy back led Wake Forest with 2,304 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns, four receiving.
“We don’t have one player that we’re looking to do everything,” Lucas said. “I think this year’s team, we’re definitely going to focus on the team concept. When you have a kid like Bryce who can score 21 points on his own, sometimes other players looked for Bryce to do that. This year, we’re going to look to do it all together.”
Expected strength: Defensive line.
Contributors: RB Tyri Beard, LB Jake Campbell, DL Xach Gill, RB Devon Lawrence, DL Dexter Lawrence, OL Brandon Locklear, OL Konnor McCune, RB Shyheem Mitchell, DB Ki'mon Small, DB Anthony Staley, DB Tyler Thomas.
Player they’ll miss: RB Bryce Love. The Stanford signee scored 33 rushing touchdowns and ammased 2,304 yards. Mitchell said he learned much from the stellar back and hopes to use some of his lessons this season.
The number: 14.3, average points per game allowed last season.
The Quote: Coach Reggie Lucas on losing Love: “I think with losing Bryce, we’re not going to replace him. He was a special athlete. I’m expecting the entire offense to help fill that void. I think we have three capable backs.”
Game to watch: Oct. 2 vs. Millbrook. This game could set the tone for Wake Forest's conference run since it's against an opponent the Cougars have playoff history with.
Past five years
2014: 15-1 (7-0), 4AA state runner-up
2013: 12-4 (4-3), 4AA state runner-up
2012: 9-3 (5-2), 4AA first round
2011: 10-3 (6-0), 4AA second round
2010: 14-2 (5-1), 4AA state runner-up