It took Weddington two games to get going this season, but from then on everything just seemed so easy.
The Warriors won each of their first two games by two touchdowns, but the defense had “struggled” by allowing 33 points in two games to start the year.
The defense wouldn’t allow 33 combined points over the next 10 games which also included six shutouts highlighted by a 35-0 win over South Iredell in the first round playoff game.
That unit turned into the best defense in school history and one of the stingiest in recent memory for any team in any classification.
The offense, behind 5-star running back Will Shipley, had put up school records in points as well.
But then in the state championship game Dec. 14 against unbeaten and high-scoring Lee County, the Warriors needed to twice come up with huge stands to take control of the game and win 34-14 to claim their second straight 3-AA title.
After Shipley’s first of four touchdowns put the Warriors up 7-0 early, Lee County marched down the field on a 21-play drive that would end at Weddington’s 2-yard line when linebacker Alec Mock picked off a pass in the end zone to kill the drive.
“It’s incredible,” said Mock, an Air Force commit who led the team with 12 tackles and the pick to earn Defensive MVP honors. “Me and Trey Alsbrooks played together since the third grade in Pop Warner. We have great chemistry, we all trust each other and we know where everyone will be. Sometimes we made mistakes, but we kept learning from it and getting better.”
The defense would have to hold again to open the third quarter, in a tone-setting stop that would pave the way for the second-half rout.
After Weddington opened the half with a 21-7 lead, quarterback Dante Casciola threw an interception that would be turned into seven points.
Lee County got the ensuing onside kick back, down just seven points with the ball near midfield.
“For the first time in a long time, I think our kids had to fight through some adversity, but I think our kids did well in that third quarter,” Weddington coach Andy Capone said. “We have 100% confidence and anytime their backs are against the wall, they stand up strong. Obviously, it’s not what we wanted, but they did a great job of scoring and getting the onsides kick. When you have a defense led by (Mock), you always feel like they can stand strong and get you the ball back.”
The Warriors forced a three-and-out on the next two Lee County drives, and limited their offense, which came in averaging 42.5 points per game, to just four first downs the rest of the game in a dominating performance.
On the season, Mock, Alsbrooks, Malik Mustapha and the Weddington defense allowed just 6.5 points per game. It was a school record, and just the second time in Weddington history (2013, 9.4) that they’ve allowed less than 10 points per game.
Mock and the defense also know what it’s like going against this Warriors offense, which averaged a school-record 44.0 points per game.
In the state championship game, Shipley made Carter-Finley Stadium his playground.
The Warriors racked up 280 yards in total in the win, and Shipley accounted for 263 of them.
Shipley only got 10 or more carries in six of the 11 regular-season games. Although he’d carried the ball double figures in all four games coming into the final, his season-high was 17.
“Our plan was to get him more carries throughout the season,” Capone said with a chuckle. “We didn’t have to, but to his credit, how many 5-stars that don’t get as many touches as he does wouldn’t complain about it? He just keeps chugging along and he’s our biggest cheerleader for anybody else who gets the rock and all of that. We knew he was going to be fresh.”
Fresh he was.
He got a season-high 26 carries for 256 yards and four touchdowns. He also caught one of the Warriors two completed passes for seven yards.
“Coming into the game, I hadn’t gotten as many carries as tonight throughout the whole season, really,” Shipley said. “Coming in I knew I was going to have to take whatever load I had to take for us to win this football game. If it was 26 (carries), 40 or two or three, I was going to do whatever coach and the team needed me to do. I feel great right now. Tomorrow morning will probably be a different story.”
Then there’s Capone, the Warriors coach who certainly fits the bill over a “player’s coach.”
He said two years ago when Tim Carson resigned, the Weddington players were egging their former assistant on to take the job.
“It’s special,” he said. “To have a group of guys that are high-schoolers worried about calculus and Spanish keep coming and asking me, ‘Are you going to get it? Are you going to apply?’ It means the world to me … Weddington is where I want to be and these guys welcomed me and continue to welcome me.”
Capone has done his part, too, guiding the team to a 30-1 record and two titles in his two years at the helm.
“It’s unbelievably special to see what these guys have done,” he said. “To end the season undefeated and how we did it is special. I don’t know if I have words to describe it right now, but as you look back it will be something that you’ll never be able to replace. I just couldn’t be happier for these guys and all the work they put in. Everything we ask them to do they do it, they push it and they make each other better.
“Something special is going on at Weddington.”