Junior Grayson Willingham became Weddington High’s starting quarterback the day before the last game of the regular season.
Sophomore David Bayha had been the starter previously, throwing for 1,608 yards and 22 touchdowns before being sidelined with a fractured fibula leading up to the Warriors’ Nov. 7 football game against Marvin Ridge Nov. 7.
The transition couldn’t have been smoother.
Willingham has thrown for 946 yards and 12 touchdowns with just three interceptions this season, leading Weddington through the playoffs and to the first state championship appearance in the school’s 15-year history.
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“We knew Grayson could do it,” said fourth-year Weddington coach Tim Carson. “He and David had good battles at the quarterback spot through the spring and summer, and we knew that he could come in and do the job.”
The Warriors (14-1) will play Northern Guilford (14-1) at 8 p.m. in Raleigh for the N.C. 3AA championship. Weddington lost to Northern Guilford 22-19 in the third round of last year’s playoffs.
Willingham, 17, scored the touchdown that put Weddington into the championship game. With less than a minute to play in the state semifinals at Union County rival Cuthbertson Dec. 5, Willingham took the snap, scrambled right and barely got into the end zone before getting hit and fumbling the ball. The Warriors won 24-21.
“Cuthbertson did a good job covering all of my receivers, so I thought I’d run and scramble and maybe get a few yards, but it was open, more open than I thought it would be,” he said. “Brooks McCament, my receiver on the outside, laid down an outstanding block, and I just plunged in for the score. ...
“I knew I was going to get hit pretty hard, but thankfully I crossed the plane before I lost the ball, so we got in there. ... It was just a rush of emotion. It was surreal, to say the least.”
Willingham spent his first two seasons of high school football with Carolina Pride, a team for students who are home schooled or attend small private schools that don’t have football programs. Willingham was a student at Greyfriars Classical Academy in Matthews.
But he knew that if he wanted a chance to play in college, he probably needed to move to a bigger program. He transferred to Weddington in January.
“I’m zoned for Weddington, and this is a great program,” Willingham said. “I’ve loved being a part of the team. We’ve got something special, and I can feel it.”
Before taking over at quarterback, Willingham (6-foot, 178 pounds) started at safety, intercepting three passes on the season.
Carson has been impressed with Willingham’s ability to run the ball. He’s rushed for 104 yards and three touchdowns on 53 carries.
“The thing that’s different is his athletic ability, as far as scrambling, and it showed Friday night (against Cuthbertson) on the last touchdown,” Carson said. “He does a great job of trying to avoid the rush, and he can scramble with it and give you extra yardage that way.”
Bayha has dressed out the past couple of weeks and is available to play, but Carson will stick with the “hot hand” that has been distributing the ball in the playoffs to players like senior wide receivers Zach Goins (895 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Chris Trevisan (866 yards, 13 touchdowns), and senior running back Mitchel Carson (1,019 yards, nine touchdowns).
“These kids are leaving something behind and setting the standard for other teams that come through,” Carson said. “This crew has built off of last year’s seniors and is just keeping it going.”
Even though he’s new to the school, Willingham knows that bringing a state championship back to Weddington would mean a lot to the community.
“Starting in August with that first game, we knew we were going to go somewhere, and I’ve just been focused on that ring,” Willingham said. “So right now it’s just, get the ring and the trophy and bring it back home.”