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How losses in high school football title games helped make Wake Forest a champion

Wake Forest head coach Reggie Lucas on returning to the 4AA title game

Wake Forest head coach Reggie Lucas talks about leading his Cougars in a third straight title game during a media availability Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. The Cougars will face Vance in the state championship on Friday.
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Wake Forest head coach Reggie Lucas talks about leading his Cougars in a third straight title game during a media availability Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. The Cougars will face Vance in the state championship on Friday.

In 2010, Wake Forest-Rolesville played in its first ever state title game.

On a cold day in Carter-Finley Stadium, Butler High School destroyed the Cougars 44-0 for the Bulldogs’ second consecutive state title.

Wake Forest would return to the title game three years later, this time with future Clemson star Dexter Lawrence on defense, and eventual 2017 Heisman finalist Bryce Love at running back. Facing another Charlotte-based team, Wake Forest was humbled once again, falling to Mallard Creek, 59-14. The next year, the Cougars faced Mallard Creek again, losing 25-14.

But this time, Lucas saw something. He knew his team could compete for a title.

“Butler put it on us pretty good and the next year I think it was Mallard Creek that put it on us pretty good,” Lucas said. “Then the third time we saw where we had I guess made improvements, we learned from those two previous loses and that third time we played, if we had a play here, a play there, it might have been a different story in that game, and then obviously we won the state championship.”

Lucas said with each trip he learned something, his staff learned something, and so did his players.

Wake Forest would win the first of two straight 4AA titles in 2016. In 2017, the Cougars would get revenge on Mallard Creek, defeating their nemesis from the west, 21-0.

Wake Forest (13-0) is back in the title game, set to take on Vance (14-1) Friday night (7:30 p.m.) at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham.

Despite two straight titles and a 44 game winning streak, Lucas still believes his team will be the underdog. In the previous two title games, the Cougars have outscored their opponents 50-0, and the last time this team lost the seniors were freshmen, collecting wins on an undefeated jayvee team.

Lucas said his team will have to get a win on Friday to continue to earn respect across the state, as ridiculous as that seems, but he’ll never forget that feeling of leaving Carter-Finley Stadium after suffering that 44-point defeat the first time around.

“Even before the Butler game in 2010 I just know how tough it is to get to this point,” Lucas said. “That’s why we appreciate when we get to this point. I know it’s tough to get to the state title game.”

Quietly driven

Mike Joyner became the athletic director at Wake Forest the season after that first state championship game appearance.

The Cougars were already on the rise after Earl Smith revived the program some dark days in the late 90s and early 2000s. Lucas followed and he quickly turned the school, then Wake Forest-Rolesville, into a force in Eastern North Carolina.

Joyner remembers meeting with Lucas when he first got the job, asking the young coach what he needed to continue winning.

“I didn’t think we needed to reinvent the wheel because, obviously, they had success even with Coach Smith there and Coach Lucas leading them to the finals in 2010,” Joyner said. “I went to him and we worked together making sure he still had the things he was used to, but he had it working like a well-oiled machine. It was his program and my job is to support it.”

Wake Forest defensive lineman Jaden McKenzie takes a ride with News and Observer reporter Jonas Pope IV and talks about his recruiting, why he is making his announcement on Dec. 19 and escaping Hurricane Katrina.

Lucas, 47, doesn’t come across as a loud, rah-rah type coach who has to raise his voice to get his point across. Wearing a suit and tie at the NCHSAA state championship press conference on Wednesday, he looked more the part of a businessman than a state championship coach. He chooses his words carefully when answering questions, his voice always remaining level.

If that first loss to Butler pained Lucas he never showed it, Joyner said. But the veteran athletic director knew it drove Lucas to get the Cougars a championship.

“He never changed,” Joyner said. “I’m sure it bothered him behind closed doors and internally, you’re not human if it didn’t, but at the same time I just think it drove him more. They just outworked people. I noticed that from the start.”

The weight room

Lucas wasted little time getting back to work after the title game losses.

The semester following the end of the season is when Lucas gets players back in the weight room. There are rules for when teams can get back on the field, but the weight room is always open. Lucas knew his teams had to get stronger to compete with the Charlotte schools. Not that they were pushed around or didn’t have the talent -- the 2010 team sent five players to Division I schools - -but improvements needed to be made.

“The weight room is real big to us,” Lucas said. “That’s where our program has made the most gains and if we’re going to continue to compete on this level, we have to stay in the weight room.”

Joyner remembers seeing this when he took the job. It was common for 100 football players to show up at 6:30 a.m., five days a week, during the summer. As Joyner put it, Lucas was “doing something right.”

And with the talent coming through the ranks -- a jayvee team that went undefeated for a couple of years -- Joyner knew it was just a matter of time. But it would take one more loss to convince him better times were ahead.

In 2015, the Cougars were 12-0 heading into the second round of the playoffs against Greensboro Page. Wake Forest was upset 30-21 at home, but with a roster full of sophomores, Joyner knew the Cougars were going to get a title soon.

“It was strange, in the year we lost to Greensboro Page in the second round, we were pretty young that year,” Joyner said. “Some of those kids were sophomores who would eventually win it as juniors and seniors and I think just that game, and some things that happened in that game after being in Trentini Stadium up two touchdowns and for them to come back to beat us the way they did, I think they saw what they needed to get done.”

Keeping the streak alive

Vance, also known as the Cougars, aren’t a pushover. Even though they are a No. 5 seed, they have lost only once and have had an impressive run through the I-Meck 4A conference.

Vance has six shutouts, and, like Wake Forest, several Division I athletes on the roster. Lucas said he won’t preach the underdog storyline to his team, even though outsiders still tend to favor the Charlotte teams in these matchups.

Wake Forest, owners of the fourth longest winning streak in the nation, might not have earned the respect of the Charlotte-based teams just yet, but they are OK with that, based on a lesson Lucas learned after his first state championship defeat.

“The things that I learned as a coach is that the opponent you’re going to play is going to be very good,” Lucas said. “You have to prepare just like you do every week … you only get one shot at a state championship game, so we try to maximize our opportunities when you get them in a game.”

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.

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