Wake Forest’s football team finishes
season undefeated and claims first state title
By Marty Simpkins
RALEIGH — After all those years of lifting weights, running sprints, showing up to practice and playing in the heat, rain and cold, Wake Forest High School’s football team finally won their first state championship in school history.
The Cougars blanked the Page Pirates from Greensboro 29-0 in the 4AA state championship game at Carter-Finley Stadium at N.C. State Saturday. It’s the first time Wake Forest’s football team has finished a season undefeated at 16-0.
“I’m extremely proud of this football team,” Wake Forest head coach Reggie Lucas said. “Going undefeated is something that is not easy to do. We had some tough playoff games, but those games helped prepare us for this one.”
It was the ultimate revenge for Wake Forest after losing to Page 30-21 in the second round of the state playoffs last year. This time, the Cougars’ defense shut down a Page offense that averaged 45 points a game.
“We played the best defensively that we could have played against a team like Page,” Lucas said. “Also, the offense did what they had to do to put the points on the board.”
Defense makes noise quickly
It didn’t take long for Wake Forest to set the tone early in the state title game. After forcing Page to go three and out on offense at their own 23-yard line, the Cougars blocked the punt, recovered the loose ball and turned it into a touchdown.
Darius Hodge came in and got the block and teammate Jaden McKenzie scooped up the ball and took it 10 yards for the opening touchdown.
“We saw something with Page’s punt formation,” Lucas said. “We knew we would have situations where Darius would be free and get an opportunity to do that. To see that work, made us coaches feel really good.”
Wake Forest’s defense posted another three and out on the next possession. The Cougars had the ball on offense for the first time in the game. Page committed a defensive pass interference call on wide receiver Lex Goodwin in the end zone, which put Wake Forest on the 3-yard line.
On the next play, Devon Lawrence sprinted to the front left corner of the end zone and bulldozed his way across the goal line for the touchdown to give Wake Forest a 13-0 lead.
Page was shut down again on their next offensive drive and Wake Forest’s offense was back on the field. On a running play, Lawrence got injured after being tackled by the horse collar. Page’s defense drew a 15-yard penalty on the play.
Lawrence eventually got back up and walked over to the sidelines on his own power. The Cougars’ offense stalled and punted the ball back to Page.
Wake Forest’s defense struck again after Page’s quarterback Will Jones threw an interception that was picked off by linebacker Jake Campbell. The senior returned the ball 33 yards to Page’s 10-yard line. Campbell was also awarded the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s sportsmanship award right before the game.
“Everyone talks about how great Darius is, but he wouldn’t be able to do what he does without Jake,” Lucas said. “Everyone overlooks Jake, but he has had an outstanding year. I was proud of how he played tonight.”
Cougars run away with the lead
Lawrence returned to the game on the first play of the second quarter. Wake Forest’s offense couldn’t punch it in, so they settled on a 22-yard field goal made by Chris Vidal to extend their lead to 16-0.
On Page’s next possession, their punt was blocked again by Hodge. It was the senior linebacker’s 14th blocked kick of his career.
“Darius is a very strong kid,” Lucas said. “If you don’t slow him up initially, he gets going. He’s pretty tough to stop. Darius came in hard in the weight room over the offseason. He played with determination this year.”
The blocked punt put Wake Forest’s offense on Page’s 21-yard line. A few plays later, Lawrence scored a 3-yard rushing touchdown from the wildcat formation.
“Our offense didn’t move the ball a lot, but we made the most of our opportunities,” Lucas said. “Page brought a solid defense. We used our field position from our defensive plays to get better and score on offense.”
With three minutes left in the first half, Page decided to go for it on fourth down. The pass was intercepted by Wake Forest linebacker Seth Williams and the Cougars took over on their own 34-yard line.
Wake Forest couldn’t score before halftime, but momentum was on their side after holding Page’s usually prolific offense to just 60 total yards on 26 plays.
Neither team scored in the third quarter. The highlight of that period was Williams getting his second interception of the game on Page’s first offensive drive of the second half. The senior’s two interceptions helped him win the best defensive player award of the state championship.
“Seth is one of the smartest linebackers I’ve coached,” Lucas said. “He has a good family history. His older brothers, Hunter and Blake, played for us in previous years and were all-conference players for us. Seth understands the game and he’s a physical player.”
Closing out the title
In the fourth quarter with 10 minutes left in the game, Wake Forest scored their final points off a trick play. Lawrence received the halfback toss and then threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Goodwin. The junior wide receiver fought through the defensive pass interference to catch the ball in the end zone to give the Cougars a 29-0 lead.
“We’ve done the wildcat and other trick plays a lot in practice and ran it against Southeast Raleigh earlier this year,” Lawrence said. “No matter how far we’re down, we just have to do what we have to do. I was confident and just trusted in my skills.”
On Page’s first play after Wake Forest’s touchdown, John Jiles intercepted a deep pass over the middle and the Cougars took over on the Pirates’ 38-yard line. The fourth interception of the night proved how tough Wake Forest’s defense was and further proved the old adage that defense wins championships.
“The defense did an outstanding job,” Lucas said. “I was impressed especially with the linebackers and the secondary. However, they can’t do their job unless the defense line puts pressure up front.”
One of those defensive linemen, Xach Gill, had a great game in his last match as a Cougar. The senior recorded five tackles, two for a loss and a sack in the state title victory. He will be playing for the UNC Tar Heels next year.
“Being born and raised in Wake Forest, winning the state championship is the ultimate thing,” Gill said. “It’s something to bring back to the community so we can have it for the rest of our lives. Being a part of history is big.”
Once the final buzzer sounded, Wake Forest’s players and coaches sprinted onto the field, jumping for joy, exchanging hugs and laughter. The celebration was well deserved. Wake Forest High School was founded back in 1941 and the football team had never won a state championship since then.
In recent memory, the Cougars have gone to the 4AA state championship game four times since 2010. After three unsuccessful trips, their perseverance has finally paid off with a victory.
“The difference between this game and the past three state championship appearances is how the kids prepared for the game,” Lucas said. “They came in feeling like they had a chance. They focused on the game and nothing else.”
Lawrence was awarded the offensive player of the championship game. The junior running back carried the ball 27 times for 91 yards. He had two rushing touchdowns and threw the long passing touchdown to Goodwin in the fourth quarter to put the nail in the coffin.
“This win means a lot to me,” Lawrence said. “We didn’t give up. We were taught every day in practice to keep grinding and keep working.”
Hodge was voted the 4AA state championship MVP award. The senior had two blocked punts and led the Cougars with 17 tackles, including one for a loss.
“It’s a blessing,” Hodge said. “All of our fans supported us to help us get this far. We’re happy to finish it off and bring a championship to Wake Forest. The coaches helped me and the rest of the guys get mentally stronger. We just had to show that on the field.”
It’s been an incredible season for Wake Forest. Statistically, this is also the best year for the Cougars in school history. The defense posted a school-record seven shutouts, including two in the playoffs.
Most of Wake Forest’s success goes to their senior class. These players have been part of three undefeated regular seasons, amassing a total of 43 wins. The Cougars will say goodbye to 27 total senior players, who Lucas said has been one of the best senior classes he’s had both on the field and in the classroom.
“This group of seniors didn’t have a lot of off the field distractions,” Lucas said. “There weren’t a lot of principal referrals or phone calls late at night. These guys are great both on and off the field. That makes a difference in how strong the football team is.”