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Mallard Creek opens new season with high expectations

By Langston Wertz Jr.
lwertz@charlotteobserver.com

Mallard Creek High’s football team is No. 9 in USA Today’s preseason national poll and is a favorite to repeat as N.C. 4AA champions.

However, senior wide receiver Kyle Horton still thinks his team doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

“I feel we’re underrated,” Horton said. “People are saying we don’t really have anybody coming back. But we feel pretty good. Everything is smooth. Everything is looking good.”

The Mavericks, who kicked off their first official practice Friday, return six starters from a team that went 16-0 last season and outscored opponents 816-161.

All-Observer Defensive Player of the Year Ikeem Allen is gone. All-Observer running back Lawrence Pittman is gone. All-Observer tight end Jaylen Samuels, MVP of the state finals, is gone. Pittman and Samuels accounted for 75 touchdowns last season.

Horton said his team – which is big and stocked full of college prospects – has reloaded and is ready to repeat.

“We have a good team,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we have one superstar that does everything. We’re spread out with talent all over the field.”

Before last season’s breakthrough performance, Mallard Creek had gone 50-6 in the previous four years, but never could get to the state championship. Stars, college recruits and national rankings came and went, but last season the Mavericks opened with a tough 27-21 win at South Carolina power Dillon, in front of an overflow crowd. It was the kind of game the Mavericks couldn’t win in the past, but this was their turning point.

“They had to learn how to win,” said Ethan Horton, a former A.L. Brown High and North Carolina star. He is Kyle Horton’s father. “When we played Chester, I saw a confidence in the team I hadn’t seen before. It was a hostile environment, a playoff atmosphere and it showed they could win anywhere, anyplace. The rest is history.”

Ethan Horton said Mallard Creek had everything else.

“They have a good weightlifting program,” he said. “Coach Mike Palmieri has put together a good system. They’ve had success putting kids in college and that’s a big draw. It’s a real program on the rise.”

This summer, Mallard Creek won the Carolina Panthers 7-on-7 for the second time in four years behind junior quarterback James Smith. That sent 12 Mavericks and two coaches on an all expenses paid trip to Indianapolis for the NFL National 7-on-7. Palmieri’s Mavericks reached the national championship game before falling to the 2013 USA Today Super 25 national champion Booker T. Washington from Miami. That school is No. 11 in USA Today’s preseason poll.

With more than 20 college recruits – including Horton, who has offers from Charlotte, Elon and James Madison, and junior defensive end Josh Brown, who has offers from Florida State, North Carolina and UCLA – Mallard Creek has area coaches expecting another big year.

“I don’t see them having a big drop off,” said South Meck coach Rocky White. “I think (Palmieri) has created an environment over there that expectations are high and kids have bought into that. Those kids want to keep winning and you can see it when you watch them practice. The guys are in good shape. I think the mentality is there for them to keep doing what they’ve been doing.”

Kyle Horton said that’s exactly the plan.

“We’re stronger,” he said. “We’ve seen what it takes to get to the state championship game and we have some of the best coaches in the state and the best talent in the state to go with it. We’re ready.”

Wertz: 704-612-9716; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr
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