From 1970 to 2009, Wake County high school football teams played in just three 4A or 4AA state championships, winning it all in 1970 (Broughton) and 1987 (Garner). There were some good college prospects through those 39 seasons, but only 17 NFL draft picks to show for it.
The county’s frequent follies in the playoffs, particularly against schools from Fayetteville, became a punch line. From 1999-2011, in all head-to-head competitions, Cumberland County was 31-12 against Wake County and its schools had played in 17 state titles from 1987-2009, winning four. Wake County had played in two, winning one.
“When I first got up here, that’s all you ever saw: how terrible football was in Wake County, that Wake County couldn’t compete with anyone else,” said Green Hope head coach David Green, who has been coaching in Wake County since 2000.
Green had gotten used to hearing the nickname “Weak County.”
The nickname no longer applies.
After Saturday’s state championships, Wake County now boasts back-to-back N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA champions (Wake Forest), a Heisman runner-up (Wake Forest grad Bryce Love of Stanford), a projected top-five NFL pick in 2019 (Wake Forest grad Dexter Lawrence of Clemson), plus three current U.S. Army high school All-Americans, four NFL draft picks in the last four years and a trio of All-ACC players.
It is clear that Wake County is much closer to being a high school football juggernaut than a laughingstock.
After toiling in mediocrity for decades, how did the state’s largest school system make such a leap? Here is a look at how it happened:
A growing talent pool
The Triangle’s population has increased 15.4 percent since 2010, and that’s been a boon to high school football programs, adding enrollment and with it, depth to the talent pool.
Football coaches feared that the growth would hurt the football talent – if the county was having a hard time competing before, what would happen if communities had to divide their talent to fill rosters at more schools?
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But the additional students brought added competition for playing time. And when one program enjoyed postseason success, it drove other coaches to improve their offseason skill development and weight training programs so they could keep the pace.
“I think Wake County just stepped up overall in the last 10-15 years,” Wake Forest head coach Reggie Lucas said. “The county has grown so much, and with growth we’ve been able to get more players, but you have to go back to the offseason workout program and the coaches.”
Since 2002, when the brackets were subdivided based on enrollment and the 4AA was reserved for the state’s largest playoff teams, Wake County schools have gotten to the 4AA final four 21 times, with 14 appearances coming since 2009.
“I think you’ve gotten some programs that have gotten pretty good and some of those other schools that want to keep up,” Green said. “And you’ve got more and more principals who want strong football programs, strong athletic programs as part of the overall atmosphere at the school, and that’s been a big change.”
When Apex Friendship opened in 2015, principal Matt Wight knew finding the right athletic director and football coach would be two of his biggest decisions.
“From the perspective of opening a new school, athletics, particularly football, are critical in establishing a school identity,” Wight said. “So many aspects of school culture are intertwined with football, marching band, cheer-leading, parent and community involvement. Building a competitive program is critical in establishing an identity.”
Outpacing the competition
Wake County has outgrown its top competition.
Fayetteville-area schools have stayed about the same in enrollment, or decreased slightly, while enrollment has spiked in Wake County. Only three of the county’s 22 traditional public high schools had less than 1,900 students this season. In a sport where depth is key, and having a larger school, in theory means a larger talent pool to draw from, this population boom helped overcome the dominance of Fayetteville.
The result: Nine of the 12 teams in this year’s 4AA East were from Wake County.
From 2000-09, Wake County was 41-65 in the 4AA and 4A playoffs (excluding intra-county matchups) with a woeful 11-24 mark against teams from Cumberland County and no championship game appearances.
Since 2010, Wake schools are 36-39 overall in the playoffs (again, excluding intra-county matchups) with a 10-6 record against Cumberland County and a 2-4 mark in state title games.
Pop Warner flourishing
In an NFL town, young Charlotte players have many opportunities to learn at clinics, camps and training facilities run by former and current Panthers players. Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieri said that he gets a skilled athlete by the time those students get to high school.
Now, the same can be said in Wake as a result of a growing bond between high school, middle school and youth football coaches.
While every Wake County middle school feeds into multiple high schools, head coaches don’t mind working with a program that may send a few players to a nearby rival. Pop Warner teams are invited to Friday night games and play on the same fields during the fall.
“At our high school, our doors are open to any youth coaches whether they want to come in and talk football, or they have any ideas about practicing or anything,” Lucas said. I’m not involved directly with anything they’re doing, but my doors are always open.
“In Wake County, you don’t have necessarily a feeder school, but you open up your doors to all the middle schools where you might get kids from those schools. I reach out to those coaches and say ‘Hey, if you have any questions or want to talk football, let’s do it.’ Because I think it’s important.”
N.C. State running back Nyheim Hines discusses how track played a role in Wake County's run of college football stars, including Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Love of Stanford and James Madison's Marcus Marshall.
It helps that Wake County’s Pee Wee and Pop Warner teams are flourishing.
In each of the last four years, two Wake teams have played in a national tournament hosted by Disney World, according to Cary Chargers president Coleman Tyrance.
“You give the youth leagues credit,” Lucas said. “They’re getting some good coaching on that level, and these kids are able to be faster and better players on the field.”
The North Raleigh Bulldogs, where Wake Forest’s Love played in his Pop Warner days, were a national runner-up this year. One possible reason for the sudden national prominence, Tyrance says, is that there are more quality coaches to go around, whether they are fathers who played in college or former high school assistant coaches who are taking a few years off to spend more time with family. The Wake County Cowboys, also a national tournament participant this year, were coached by former Athens Drive athletic director Alvin Thompson.
Tyrance said there are about 25 players on most teams, and if a few stay together through high school, it pays dividends. Look no further than Sanderson. The Spartans are coming off the most back-to-back wins in school history thanks to two N.C. State recruits – Alim McNeill and Trent Pennix – who have played together since Pop Warner.
“It might not be the whole team, but if seven or eight guys live in a certain area and they play Pop Warner, and their parents don’t move and they go to the same high school and they’re familiar with one another, that’s huge,” said Tyrance, who is also an assistant at Apex High. “That part can pan out for kids when they get older and get into high school.”
A recruiting destination
There are a number of success stories in Wake County players making the best of FCS offers or walk-on invitations.
Garner’s Warren Messer wasn’t offered by FBS schools, but he finished his senior year this season in the top 10 in FCS defensive player of the year voting. Athens Drive’s Daniel Riddle put up big high school numbers, but had to walk-on at Western Carolina, and he was instantly a star linebacker. N.C. Central has had two star running backs in the last four years who were overlooked while in Wake County (Panther Creek’s Dorrel McClain, Apex’s Isaiah Totten). Middle Creek’s Garrett Leatham was a walk-on who worked his way toward being the No. 2 signal-caller at a bowl-bound ACC school. Leesville star Taylor Gentry was a three-year starter at fullback for N.C. State. Wake Forest High’s Marcus Jones had to go to Minnesota to play FBS football, and he ended his career No. 1 in program history in kick returns.
Fewer players are going under the radar now.
In the latest 247sports’ recruiting rankings, three of the top 100 seniors in the country are in Wake County: Green Hope’s Jordyn Adams (a North Carolina recruit) is 11th, while N.C. State recruits Ricky Person of Heritage and Alim McNeill of Sanderson are 33rd and 92nd, respectively.
Wake schools in 4AA Final Four since 2002
East Wake (2002)
Southeast Raleigh (2003)
Green Hope (2005)
Garner (2006, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017)
Leesville Road (2007)
Wake Forest (2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017)
Panther Creek (2010)
Middle Creek (2013, 2015, 2016)
Wake County Football Stars
In addition to Heisman runner-up Bryce Love of Wake Forest and Stanford and future NFL top draft pick Dexter Lawrence of Wake Forest and Clemson, Wake County has recently produced these football stars:
Three current U.S. Army high school All-Americans: Sanderson’s Alim McNeill, Green Hope’s Jordyn Adams and Heritage’s Ricky Person Jr.
Four NFL draft picks in the last four years: Tye Smith (Wakefield, Tennessee Titans), Keith Marshall (Millbrook, Washington Redskins), Juston Burris (Broughton, New York Jets), Daniel McCullers (Southeast Raleigh, Pittsburgh Steelers)
An All-ACC: Running back Nyheim Hines (Garner, N.C. State), wideout Braxton Berrios (Leesville Road, Miami), defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (Wake Forest, Clemson)