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Wake Forest's state championship streak ends

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WAKE FOREST - After three straight 4AA state championships, Wake Forest's football team has been knocked out of the playoffs for the first time since 2015 after a 21-10 loss to Leesville Road at home Friday in the 4AA east regional championship game. 

The last time the two teams met in the playoffs, it was last year when Wake Forest crushed the Pride 41-10. This time, Leesville Road got their revenge by keeping the Cougars out of the state title game. 

Wake Forest made a bunch of big plays on both offense and defense. The defense forced turnovers, but could not capitalize. Meanwhile, Leesville Road scored three touchdowns, including a 32-yard touchdown pass five seconds before halftime. 

Wake Forest head coach Reggie Lucas said the difference in this game was that his defense did not stop Leesville Road enough times for his offense to get clicking. 

"Leesville made three or four big plays to win this ball game," Lucas said. "Even though we made a couple of mistakes on offense, we have to be better on defensively. We gave up too many big plays tonight." 

Wake Forest actually had a pretty good start to the game. The Cougars forced back-to-back turnovers on Leesville Road's side of the field. 

However, the first offensive drive resulted in a missed field goal and then a 32-yard field goal on the next drive to make it a 3-0 game with 5:35 left in the first quarter. 

On Leesville Road's third possession of the game, the Pride scored on a 78-yard halfback screen pass for a touchdown. The extra point made the score 7-3 before the end of the first quarter. 

In the second quarter, Wake Forest forced two more turnovers: a fumble recovery and an interception. However, none of those takeaways turned into points. Leesville Road showed how it was done. 

With 14 seconds left in the second quarter, the Pride intercepted Wake Forest quarterback Chad Hillman on the Wake Forest 40-yard line. Then nine seconds later, Leesville Road scored on a deep passing touchdown to make it 14-3.

The only highlight of the third quarter was a short rushing touchdown by Leesville Road to extend their lead to 21-3. 

In the fourth quarter, Wake Forest got their home crowd back into the game. Kahlil Watson scored off a 4-yard rushing touchdown on a reverse play. That cut the deficit to 21-10 with 11:10 remaining. Wake Forest still had a chance. 

However, the Cougars could not get anything going offensively on their next drive. They punted the ball back to Leesville Road, who ran out the clock by running the ball up the middle. Wake Forest could only watch as their season ended with the clock hitting zero. 

Wake Forest has been plagued with injuries all year and it seemed as if they finally caught up to them against the undefeated Pride. Starting running back Maquel Haywood tore his ACL earlier in the season. A few starting offensive linemen went down with multiple injuries. Starting quarterback Noah Douglas went down with a leg injury last week. 

Lucas said he felt like the back-up players could step up and get them the win. In the end, Leesville Road proved too much for the Cougars. 

"We had what we needed to win," Lucas said. "If we took away those big plays that Leesville made against us, the result would have probably been different." 

With the loss, Wake Forest finished the season 12-2 overall. The Cougars will no longer play for a state championship after winning the last three in a row. Lucas gave credit to his seniors for their valiant effort this year. He said without them, the team wouldn't have made it this far in the postseason. 

"Look at what these seniors accomplished," Lucas said. "I guarantee nobody thought we would have made it as far as we did this year with the players we had on this roster. The seniors had an incredible run, even though they come up short. I'm proud of them." 

Now that the season is over, Wake Forest can take a break, regroup and get ready for next year. Lucas said he wants his players to remember the thrill of victory and the sorrow of defeat. It will help motivate them to make another title run in 2020. 

"Hopefully the guys who are coming back next year saw Leesville celebrating tonight's win," Lucas said. "I want them to be hungry for next season."