Experience Wake Forest’s practice as it seeks to continue its winning ways
Reggie Lucas remembers the last time Wake Forest lost a game and the feeling after it.
It wasn’t so much about how he felt, but what he saw one of his players go through. It was Nov. 20, 2015 and the Cougars had rolled into the second round of the playoffs a perfect 12-0.
That team featured a host of future college players, including current New York Giants rookie defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. But on that night Greensboro Page would get the best of Wake Forest, shocking the Cougars, 30-21.
As Lucas walked on the field he spotted Darius Hodge. The junior was 6-3, 230 pounds of solid muscle, but the heartbreaking defeat made Hodge, now a defensive end at Marshall, crumble to the ground like a young child, tears flowing down his face.
Lucas walked over to Hodge, urged him to get up, take the loss like a man. It was the last time Lucas had a conversation like that with one of his players and it was an image that stuck with Lucas.
,Luckily for him and the Cougars ,they haven’t had that feeling since.
Wake Forest has reeled off 45 consecutive wins, with three straight 4AA titles to show for it. They have turned into the premier program in the state, still able to hold off the Charlotte-based powerhouses in the North Carolina prep football hierarchy.
The Cougars kicked off the 2019 campaign on Thursday morning with their first official practice of the year, beginning the quest to defend their three titles and keep the streak alive. Graduation hits every high school the same, but has it finally caught up to the Cougars, who have just reloaded, not rebuilt, in previous seasons? Will the streak end? Have the rest of the schools in the Triangle closed the gap?
Only time will tell, but for now, there is work to be done.
Lucas burst out of his office, wearing a black Wake Forest t-shirt with the Jordan Jumpman logo over his chest. He makes his way through a lobby, where coaches and players maneuver after the first practice. His assistant coaches chat with players, while other Cougars line up in a classroom to get equipment.
Lucas bounces out the door to the main building, unlocking another door that leads to a locker room. The coach says he’s doing well, but having played so many games the last three seasons, jokes that he doesn’t know if he’s coming or going.
For three straight years football season extended into December for Wake Forest, which bled into winter workouts in January, then summer sessions of weights, cardio and 7-on-7 scrimmages.
At this point the players know the drill. The program almost runs itself. After that first semester of their freshman year, if they play football, they know how Lucas and his staff do things.
“The way we run the program, yes, that’s in place,” Lucas said. “But that’s not necessarily making us successful. What I’m thinking about at this point is the players.”
His staff still has to coach up the guys, this season probably more so than ever. Lucas gave one example. The entire defensive line is new, a first during this three-year run. After the first day of practice, he said he and his staff have to “coach their butts off” because this is such a young group.
The foundation of his previous three teams have been returning players, guys like Hodge, who didn’t want to know what it felt like to lose again.
But Lucas makes no excuses. When players put on that blue and red, the expectations are the same. Luckily, his plan and the way they do things are set. It goes back to Lucas picking up different ideas from coaches he played for and worked under. He mentioned his administration, for seeing his vision and backing him every step of the way.
But it’s really simple.
“Believing in your players, coaching what you have,” Lucas said, “And hard work. You have to put in the work, you have to put in the time. If you don’t, these coaches out here are going to outsmart you during games.”
Lucas spent the early part of his career chasing the top teams in the state. When he turned around the Wake Forest program, Jack Britt out of Fayetteville constantly was the coach who got in the way in the playoffs. Once they slayed that giant, it was the Charlotte teams -- first Butler, then two loses to Mallard Creek in the state championship game.
Now the hunter has turned into the hunted. Players on that first title team, including Hodge, knew what it felt like to want to avenge a loss, and that drove them. For the last three seasons, Wake Forest has sat on top of the mountain, and every Friday night they will have a target on their backs because everyone wants to be the team to say they ended the streak.
“The pressure is going to be there in general,” Lucas said. “Other teams are looking forward to it (ending the streak) and I think that’s great. I would love to coach for another 10 years and never lose a game. That’s not going to happen.”
Lucas never brings up the streak to his players. If it’s mentioned, it’s usually brought up by someone outside of the program. His focus is always on the next game. But he made it clear, the ‘L’ word isn’t talked about around Wake Forest.
“The last three groups have been following three successful groups,” Lucas said. “They want to uphold that standard. This group is saying they don’t want to be that group to lose a game. I know that last group, that was their motto, and every week they came out and made it happen.”
THE 2019 SEASON
As much as it hurt Lucas to watch Hodge cry on the field in 2015, he knew it was a good sign. That let him know that winning meant so much to his players.
Hodge and his class came back together that next year, won every game and it led to the first state title for Lucas and Wake Forest. After the Page game, Lucas remembers Hodge telling him he never wanted to feel that way again.
He has to wait and see if this current team has that kind of passion for winning.
“That’s what we have to get to with this group because you don’t know what losing will do to this group,” Lucas said. “I knew what it would have done to last year’s group, it would have ripped them apart. We have to get that hunger in these young kids now that Darius had.”
The early season test won’t be easy. The Cougars start off with Cardinal Gibbons, the defending Cap-7 champs, and the rest of the non-conference schedule includes Clayton, Garner, Middle Creek, Millbrook and Wallace-Rose Hill, one of the top 2A schools in the state.
If they lose, Lucas said, things could easily spiral out of control for this team. He hopes he doesn’t find out too soon.
“Our responsibility as a staff is to make sure these kids understand what’s at stake,” Lucas said. “Obviously, we don’t as much talk about ending the streak, or extending the streak. We talk about how to handle yourself as a person in tough situations, because they are coming. On that field or in life, they are coming.”