At the start of the NCHSAA football season in August, Hoggard had something to prove.
After a season littered with injuries and unfortunate scenarios in 2022, the Vikings wanted to reclaim the Mideastern Conference title this fall and see how far they could advance in the state playoffs.
Hoggard’s already achieved one of those goals as they cruised past New Hanover in October to earn its fifth MEC title in the last seven years, but now the team is vying for a state title.
Smashing Cardinal Gibbons 41-20 at home in the NCHSAA 4A East Regional Final on Dec. 2, the Vikings (14-1) booked their ticket for Saturday’s 4A state championship vs. Weddington. The game starts at 7 p.m. and will be played at Carter-Finley Stadium, home to the N.C. State Wolfpack.
Weddington (13-2) is a perennial powerhouse located just South of Charlotte. The Warriors have gone 76-8 over the last six seasons, winning three 3AA state championships between 2016-2019. The team is playing in its first 4A state championship Saturday.
With its most significant challenge of the season, Hoggard is looking to add its second state championship in program history on Saturday. The Vikings would become the third team in New Hanover County to win a football state title since the turn of the century.
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How good is Weddington football?
The Warriors were one game removed from a state championship appearance last fall, coming up just short of Grimsley in the West Regional Final.
This season, Weddington worried some in a regular season-finale loss to Marvin Ridge. Those critics have since been silenced as the team has outscored opponents 171-58 during its five playoff wins this postseason, including a revenge victory over Grimsley in Round 4.
“They’re a very good football team,” Hoggard coach Craig Underwood said of Weddington. “They’re very disciplined, they’re a physical football team. They’re in this game for a reason, but we’re going to focus on us doing the things the way we’ve done it all year each week.”
The Warriors boast one of the state’s more talented rosters, holding at least seven Division I commits or signees. Three-star wideout and UNC commit Keenan Jackson has caught 91 passes for 1,568 yards and 17 touchdowns this fall.
Quarterback Tyler Budge (Committed to Georgia Southern) has had a strong senior season, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 29 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
On the defensive side of the ball, Weddington twins Aiden and Andrew Harris have received several offers from Division I Power 5 programs. The sophomore duo has combined for 197 tackles and 14.5 sacks in 2023.
Aside from its loss to Marvin Ridge, the Warriors’ only other blunder this season came in Week 4 when Butler edged out a 22-15 victory.
Turning its talent into tangible success, Weddington has shown it earned its spot in a state championship game.
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How good is Hoggard football?
The Vikings might not have a long list of Division I football commits, but their success on the field as a team in 2023 has been special.
Hoggard started the season with a six-point loss to Cleveland, which was later avenged in a 51-35 win in Round 4 of the playoffs. Besides that Week 1 loss, the Wilmington school has been virtually unstoppable, outscoring opponents by an average of 42.6 to 11.7.
In its five playoff games this postseason, Hoggard hasn’t slowed down, putting up 226 points while allowing 81.
The team’s defensive unit has forced 16 turnovers in the last three weeks, including three touchdowns and a safety. Senior defensive end Malakahi West leads the team with 14.5 sacks. Safeties Kamar Fulton and Josiah Gillespie have combined for 14 interceptions in 2023.
The team’s offense has also had a stand-out year as senior quarterback Hudson Wilharm has thrown for 2,662 yards and 31 touchdowns to five interceptions.
Hoggard might not have the talent that Weddington has on paper, but the Vikings look like the more complete unit.
HOW WE GOT HERE Hoggard football reclaims Mideastern Conference title from New Hanover in dominant win
What makes the difference?
The classic adage “defense wins championships” will undoubtedly ring true for whichever team walks away victorious on Saturday night.
While both teams have stout defensive units, Hoggard’s ability to consistently create turnovers this season has been remarkable. The team has come away with 25 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, nine fumble recoveries, and two safeties this fall.
The Weddington defense has forced 16 turnovers while allowing just 12.8 points per game.
Hoggard has one of the state’s most assertive defenses, and Weddington has more than enough talent to match. Whoever wins Saturday’s showdown will likely be the team with fewer turnovers, and the Vikings are ready for the challenge.
“I think when you have two teams who are similar, it comes down to turnovers, it comes down to special teams, penalties… we’ve got to win all those phases,” Underwood said. “It’s an awesome feeling (to play in a state championship). We have worked on it for a long time, and I could not be happier with this group of guys.”
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