The N.C. High School Athletic Association football playoff pairings were released Saturday afternoon. Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieri said he was not surprised by how tough his team’s potential road to a championship appears.
The Mavericks have won the past three N.C. 4AA championships and are attempting to become just the fourth team in NCHSAA history to win it four consecutive seasons.
To achieve that, Mallard Creek might have to face two teams ranked in the Associated Press N.C. 4A Top 10 rankings in back-to-back weeks. Assuming higher seeds were to win, Mallard Creek could play regional power Butler in the second round and then arch-rival Vance in the quarterfinals. Those games would be on the road.
“Really,” Palmieri said, “we don’t care. It doesn’t matter who we play. We could end up playing three of the teams that were on our regular-season schedule. But we’ve got to win one before we worry about a second. And we know it’s a tough road, and we’re looking forward to it.”
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Mallard Creek (8-2) will play its first-round game at MECKA rival Hough (7-4) Friday. The Mavericks beat Hough 42-21 at Hough on Oct. 6. Mallard Creek won 35-20 at Butler on Aug. 26, but lost 38-21 at home to Vance on Oct. 14.
“We aren’t surprised at our draw,” Palmieri said. “We knew who we could play. We could’ve almost put it together ourselves. And I think maybe we’re underdogs this year, which will be something different, because everybody thinks we’re not playing as good as we have in the past.”
The 4AA bracket seems heavily tilted toward the bottom, where Butler, Mallard Creek and Vance sit. The upper half of the bracket features just one team ranked in the 4A top 10 poll, No. 6 Greensboro Page.
In 4A, Harding’s Rams are in the postseason for the first time since 2010, after winning three of their final four regular-season games. Harding (5-6) will play at East Forsyth Friday. Also in 4A, Charlotte Catholic, the reigning N.C. 4A champion, will begin its playoff push with a home game with Winston-Salem Parkland. The Cougars will have home-field advantage at least until the quarterfinals, and will hunt a third straight appearance in the 4A state finals before they drop to 3AA next season.
For nearly all western teams, there were no games this week, after flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew last month prevented many teams from going to school or playing football. That forced the NCHSAA to extend the regular season one week. Those games were made up Friday and the playoffs will begin next week.
Palmieri said having a week off helped his team.
“We really used it to our benefit, to prepare for what’s coming up,” he said.
Palmieiri said it also gave his coaches and players time to reflect on what’s been a rocky season. Mallard Creek started the season ranked as high as No. 10 in the country, but struggled to score early in the season and committed many penalties, uncharacteristic for Palmieri’s past state champions.
The coach says his team is past that now.
“We had some things go on in the program we had to address, as players and coaches to get better,” Palmieri said. “When you win three in a row, it gets a little tricky with these kids. Sometimes you have to remember what got us there and not forget about the little things.
“We went back and looked at some stuff, as coaches and players, and we feel we’ve got as good a chance as anybody. We’re built for this time of year. We know how this process works. Our kids know when to turn it on.”
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Four-time NCHSAA state champions
Three teams have won four straight N.C. High School Athletic Association state championships:
Greenville Rose: Won four straight 4A titles from 2003-06
Independence: Won seven straight N.C. 4A and N.C. 4AA titles from 2000-06
Robbinsville: won five straight 1A titles from 1979-83
*Note: Shelby is going for a fourth straight title this season. The Golden Lions won 2AA in 2013 and 2A in 2014 and ‘15.