Cougars clutch in state championship, earn first shutout in title game since 2010

Darius Hodge Championship Total Tackles: 17 Blocked Punts: 2 Season Tackles: 136 Sacks: 9 Interceptions: 8 Forced Fumbles: 2

Suzanne Blake, Editor-In-Chief

Dominating this season, the Cougars have attained a new but highly-sought-after title. They are state champions after emerging victorious in the last battle against Greensboro’s Page Pirates Dec. 17.

The Cougars won 29 to 0 in a game that brought them their first championship and Wake County’s first since Garner High School’s win in 1987.

Prior to this momentous occasion, many of the players sensed the magnitude of what was about to take place.

“Going into the game, I felt sensational because in my mind I knew this was our year,” senior defensive tackle Xach Gill, who has committed to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said.

For senior defensive back Emmari Preddy, the future was unclear.

“I didn’t really know what was going to happen, but I wanted to make sure I was confident,” Preddy said. “I wanted to make sure that my teammates were confident and make sure that I watched as much film as possible.”

Confidence played a key role in the game’s opening period. Within two minutes, senior outside linebacker Darius Hodge blocked a punt and sophomore defensive end Jaden McKenzie scored a touchdown.

“It got us some momentum going into the rest of the game. It helped the offense have confidence and score some points,” senior kicker Forrest Lee said.

Last year, the team fell to Page 31-21 in the second round of the NCHSAA playoffs. Coach Glendon Dillard, who coaches the running backs, believes a key to this year’s success was in the players themselves.

“I think having guys like Darius (Hodge), Jake (Campbell), Devon (Lawrence), Gunnar (Carrigan), Will Jones and Xach (Gill) play in one or two of these things helped a great deal. They were excited, but not caught up in the event of it all. They approached the whole week the same way they have always approached a big game,” Dillard said. “They really focused on their jobs and kept everybody locked in.”

The state championship game was played at Carter Finley Stadium, home of the North Carolina State University, Wolfpack, instead of the familiar Trentini Stadium.

“It’s just a bigger stage, bigger stadium, but other than that, it’s still football, still in between the lines, and we still need to take care of business the same way,” senior kicker Chris Vidal said.

Vidal kicked a 22-yard field goal during the second quarter, enabling the Cougars to rise to 16-0.

With a change in scenery, there was little change to the team’s pre-game rituals, which included a moment of silence and a pre-game meal together. However, focusing on skills was vital for the rival that had previously beaten them.

“We had been studying film all week on them, so we knew their scheme, and we knew what they were going to do,” senior wide receiver Gunnar Carrigan said. “Offense, we just focused on blocking, and defense, they just focused on form tackling instead of trying to get the knockout hit.”

The Cougars also strategized to use the Wildcat formation and a trick play in which junior running back Devon Lawrence threw a pass to junior wide receiver Lex Goodwin, a contrast to the typical wing-T system.

“You always want to go into a game with something a little bit different than the other team might be prepared for and hope to catch them in a situation where we could take advantage of it, and it just so happened that those worked out for us,” coach Hancel Phipps said.

At half time, the Cougars were ahead 23-0. According to Lawrence, who was named offensive player of the game, head coach Reggie Lucas stressed continued determination.

“Keep grinding, keep pounding and we will win. We are 24 minutes away from a state championship,” Lawrence said of Lucas’s message at half time.

To junior quarterback Chris James, the tensest moment of the game came with the final touchdown.

“One of the most exciting parts was getting Devon the last touchdown. It sealed the win,” James said.

Goodwin believes Hodge, Gill, James and junior outside linebacker Seth Williams led by example in the countdown to the victory.

“Chris (James) definitely led us on offense,” Goodwin said. “Being the QB, you have to do that and definitely played a great game, never stopped running his feet, and he just put his heart out there for us.”

Coach Ivan Braszo contributes the Cougars’ victory to their dedication.

“We came out aggressive. We prepared and had a good game plan going in. We knew going into that game that we had to come out and be dominant and bully them and not give them any opportunity to get anything going,” Braszo said. “We got a fast start and never looked back.”

After the final time was called and the true champions were revealed, a mix of emotions overcame the players.

“It was relieving and incredible because it was the third time we’d been there, and both of my brothers played, and for me to be the first one to win out of my brothers was a great feeling,” Williams, who received the title Defensive Player of the Game and made two interceptions, said.

Immense elation and gratitude filled the coaches as well.

“You feel like everything that you’ve put in for the whole year, starting back in May with workouts and all of the summer, was finally coming worth it,” Phipps said. “It’s what we’ve been dreaming of all season long.”

There was no question in many fans and coaches’ minds that the Cougars could pave their way here. For Dillard, whose seniors this year were his first JV team as head coach, this is especially true.

“I’m not shocked that this group put itself in position to be successful. There are not only quality athletes in this class, but quality people. They’re guys who lead and do things the right way,” Dillard said. “They also have had a will to work and succeed since the moment they stepped on campus, and to see that flourish and see the young men they have become has really meant a lot.”

Lucas reiterates this sentiment.

“It symbols what this group of young men was able to accomplish this year. They all wanted it for themselves, school and community,” Lucas said.

The undefeated season holds meaning for so many, for the seniors moving on and the underclassmen determined to repeat this historic season in the years to come.

Hodge, who was named MVP of the game, said the triumph was “a blessing” for the team that for so long was thought to be an underdog.

Hodge said, “It finally happened, and no one can ever say we didn’t do it, and we proved them all wrong.”