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Weddington stops Independence, will face Wilmington Hoggard in its first 4A state final

Andy Capone said he knew there were questions about his football team.

“People saw that we lost our last (regular-season) game, to Marvin Ridge, and they wondered what was happening to us,” Capone said Friday night.

“I knew we would be OK, though,” he added.

Yes, Weddington’s football team is OK.

In fact, the Warriors are headed to the 4A state championship game, after their 34-14 victory over visiting Independence in the West Regional finals.

Weddington (13-2) will face Wilmington’s Hoggard (14-1) for the state title at 7 p.m. next Saturday at N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium.

The Warriors, who have surged after that late-October loss to Marvin Ridge, will be playing for their fourth state championship.

Weddington did plenty of things right Friday night, but what the Warriors did right most often was play great defense. They held Independence (11-4) to minus-32 rushing yards. Patriot junior running back Jayden Jones, a sophomore who had 10 100-yard rushing games this season, carried 10 times for 15 yards Friday night.

“We practiced on swarming the ball,” Weddington sophomore defensive lineman Aiden Harris said. “We went after the guy who had the ball and made sure to wrap him up. We didn’t want anyone breaking any tackles.”

Weddington hosted Independence in an NCHSAA 4A state semifinal Friday night
Weddington hosted Independence in an NCHSAA 4A state semifinal Friday night

At times, the Warriors’ defense was absolutely suffocating.

In one second-quarter series, Harris had a sack and a tackle for loss, and his twin brother, Drew, also had a tackle for loss. Independence lost 14 yards on the series.

And in the second quarter, the Patriots had great field position after linebacker Vontrez Burch recovered a Weddington fumble and returned it to the Warriors 11.

Eight plays later, Independence had gained only 3 yards. The drive was kept alive by several Weddington penalties, but the Patriots ended up with nothing to show for it, after kicker Lyric Kopera slipped and fell on a field goal attempt.

The Warriors’ offense had a few problems early in the game.

A pair of drives into the red zone resulted in field goals, and Weddington trailed for much of the first quarter.

“That’s absolutely inexcusable,” Warriors’ quarterback Tyler Budge said. “When we get that deep, we need to be scoring touchdowns. That’s something we cannot do next week in the championship game.”

But the offense eventually began humming.

Much like last week against Grimsley, the Warriors’ ground game carried them in the second half, as the field grew increasingly slippery with rain falling much of the time.

Junior running back Nick Diamond finished with 134 yards and had 93 of those after halftime.

“That’s all because of our offensive line,” Diamond said. “They do a tremendous job for us. I just go through the holes they open up.”

In his remarks to the team after the game, Capone referred to questions that some fans had about Weddington being seeded No. 1 in the West with an 8-2 record.

“Some people didn’t believe in you,” he said. “But you believed in each other, and you did it.

“Some people said we didn’t deserve the No. 1 seed … but guess what?”

Three who made a difference

Tyler Budge, Weddington: A Georgia Southern commit, Budge threw for 146 yards and ran 14 times for 88 yards and two touchdowns.

Brian Crowder, Independence: A junior wide receiver, Crowder had eight receptions for 110 yards and accounted for nearly 70 percent of the Patriots’ total offensive yardage.

Aiden Harris, Weddington: A sophomore defensive lineman, Harris and his twin brother Drew spent much of the night in the Independence backfield. Harris finished with a sack and four tackles for losses.

Worth noting

Independence coach D.J. McFadden, who, as he says, “like to stir things up sometimes,” was the epitome of class after the game. He led his team in clapping for Weddington as the Warriors received their West Regional plaque. He then led his team back to the Independence sidelines, where he and the players thanked their fans.

Despite the miserable weather, the stadium was jammed on both sides.

While Weddington will be playing for its fourth state title, it is the Warriors’ first appearance in the 4A championship. Their three state titles were won in the 3AA division.

A bad snap on a punt played a big role in the outcome. It came with Independence punting from its 46. The snap sailed past punter Lyric Kopera, and he picked it up at the 16 and was immediately tackled. Weddington scored a touchdown two plays later for a 27-7 lead.

Game summary

Independence 7 0 7 0 – 14

Weddington 13 0 14 7 – 34

First quarter

W – FG Everett Scott 34

I – Brian Crowder 43 pass from Justin Little (Lyric Kopera kick)

W – FG Scott 35

W – Tyler Budge 11 run (Scott kick)

Third quarter

W – Nick Diamond 15 run (Scott kick)

W – Budge 8 run (Scott kick)

I – Jayden Jones 2 run (Kopera kick)

Fourth quarter

W – Diamond 1 run (Scott kick)