Wonders meet Dudley for state 3AA crown
By Bill Kiser
Throughout all the practices and games played this season, A.L. Brown's coaching staff has used words like "execution" and "focus."
Now, as the Wonders prepare for their biggest game of the 2008 season, the coaches have added another word to their vocabulary.
Relax ... and have a little fun.
Brown will try to do that and more this weekend in its first state final appearance in more than a decade, facing defending state champion Greensboro Dudley for the N.C. High School Athletic Association's 3AA title.
Game time is 4:30 p.m. Saturday at BB&T Stadium in Winston-Salem.
The Wonders (13-2) advanced to the state final for the fifth time in school history and the first time since 1997 with a 30-14 victory over Kings Mountain in the 3AA West regional final last week.
"We want them to enjoy it," offensive line coach Todd Hagler said. "It's a big game, but it's just a game. We'll prepare for it just like any other game.
"But we want them to enjoy the atmosphere because it's a reward — not everybody gets to do this ... and you never know when you'll get this opportunity again."
Brown had played in the 3A title game in 1984, 1989, 1991 and 1997, winning state championships in 1989 and 1991, both under former head coach Bruce Hardin.
"It's a great feeling for our kids, to get the experience of playing for a state championship," said Wonders head coach Ron Massey, who coached Kings Mountain to the 3A state final in 1998.
"I don't think we played the best game we've played this year, but the kids were resilient — they did what we had to do to win, and when you're in the playoffs that's all that matters."
The key to Brown's first 3AA West regional title win was its defense, which kept Kings Mountain quarterback Michael Roberts — who led the Mountaineers in rushing (1,491 yards), passing (1,507 yards) and touchdowns (30) — in check.
Roberts had thrown for a season-best 295 yards and four touchdowns, plus ran for two more, in KM's 56-55 slugfest win over Anson County a week earlier. But against the Wonders, he managed just 123 yards passing and one touchdown and 31 rushing yards and one TD.
In all, Brown's defense held Kings Mountain to 180 yards total offense — half of its average during the season — sacked Roberts three times and even forced him into throwing his first interception in two months.
The defense's performance made life a little easier on the Wonders' offense, who scored three times in the second quarter to take command of the game.
Quarterback Jamill Lott threw for one touchdown and ran for a second during that second-quarter surge, with Travis Riley also adding a TD run as Brown pulled ahead 21-7.
"We knew Kings Mountain was good ... and we knew we were going to have to throw it to open up the run," Hagler said. "Overall, we played well."
After Riley's 1-yard run tied the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter, Lott put Brown ahead to stay with a 12-yard TD run with 4:40 remaining. Then, with time ticking away, Lott found T.J. Johnson in the corner of the end zone for an 8-yard TD pass with 3.3 seconds left in the half.
The Mountaineers managed to cut the Wonders' lead to 21-14 early in the fourth quarter on Roberts' 1-yard run. However, Brown responded with a pair of scoring drives _ capped by Morgan McDaniels' 20-yard field goal and Antwoine Jordan's 14-yard TD run — and a pair of fourth-down stops.
"This is a great feeling," Lott said. "We had no doubts — no doubts at all — that we could do it. ... We've played a lot of good teams this year, but we knew that if we played our hearts out, we could do it.
"We always believed we could do this ... but it was our defense that helped us tonight. You know what they say — offense wins games, but defense wins championships."
And in Dudley, the Wonders — who have now won 10 straight games entering Saturday's 3AA state final — will be facing a team that offensively is a virtual mirror image of Kings Mountain.
While the Panthers (15-0) — who have now won 21 straight games, including last week's 52-7 3AA East regional final victory over Northeast Guilford — employ a spread offense that makes it look like they want to throw the ball, its their ground game — focused around quarterback Ricky Lewis and running back J.R. Petersen — that produces most of the yards and points.
"They're very athletic up front, and their quarterback is their main ball carrier," Lyon said. "That's why they're similar to Kings Mountain — in fact, they run a lot of the same plays — but (Lewis) is more explosive and a harder runner.
"We've got our work cut out for us this week — we've got to play very well ... but they're not a pro team. If we can execute and play well, we can win the ballgame."
Defensively, Dudley may be the toughest challenge the Wonders' offense has faced this season, according to Hagler. While it usually stacks eight players along the line, making life tough for running backs, it has also proven to have a tough defensive secondary."
They've got 11 really good players," Hagler said. "They don't do anything fancy ... and they truly do not have a weakness that we can find. They're sound in their alignments — they don't blitz or stunt much — and they've got players who are capable at every position.
"They haven't lost a game in nearly two seasons for no reason _ they haven't done it with smoke and mirrors, they've done it with great defense. That's what wins championships.
"They've got a good offense, too, but their defense makes it hard on people to even get good field position, and that's just as important as getting first downs in a tight ballgame."
While most of Brown's players haven't played for a state title contender — the lone exception is defensive lineman Dwayne Stroud, who played at Charlotte Independence during its state 4A championship run in 2006 — its coaching staff has plenty of experience.
Seven of the Wonders' coaches have either played or coached in state championship games _ Massey when he was head coach at Kings Mountain in 1998; Lyon and Hagler, who coached at Richmond County during its 4A title run in 1997; James Lott, who played on Brown's 3A runner-up team in 1984; Jeremy Ryan, who was an assistant under Hardin on Brown's 3A championship team in 1997; and Scott Jordan and Orlando Gray, who played on the 1989 3A championship team.
"You've got to get them to relax a little bit," Lyon said. "It seems funny, but getting (to the state final) is only half the battle. It takes 15 games to get there ... and you have to have some breaks along the way.
"But the other half is all balled up into one week. You want to win it ... and you want to make it a better experience for the kids, but at the same time you can't put so much pressure on the kids that they don't feel comfortable playing in it."