Friday night, Harding and perennial power Mallard Creek will play for the first time in seven years in high school football. It’s a rare moment for Harding to be part of such a featured matchup.
Earlier this month, Harding joined the Observer’s Sweet 16 high school football poll for the first time since 1989. The Rams (4-0) are trying to achieve their third winning season since 1990. To get to 5-0, they must upset a Mallard Creek team that’s 3-0 and has won three of the past four N.C. 4AA championships.
Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Harding.
“They called us and needed a game,” Harding coach Sam Greiner said of Mallard Creek. “Ashbrook backed out on us, and they said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’ I said, ‘All right, let’s go, and y’all have to come play in the mud (at Harding’s home field).
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“I wanted to see where we’re at and test our guys. If we can get battle-tested early - when it becomes playoff time - we can be better because we know what we need to work on.
“If you’re not playing the best, you don’t know how good you really are. And they’re kind of the Kings of the Queen City, so let’s see how good they really are.”
Harding is off to its best start in four years, coming off a 28-21 win over Gaffney (S.C.), which was No. 10 in last week’s S.C. 5A poll. The Rams also won at Hough, which was top 10 in the Sweet 16 preseason rankings.
But Friday will be the Rams’ biggest test this season. Mallard Creek lost the second game in its school history to Harding, 32-7, in 2007. The Rams won in 2008 by forfeit. Mallard Creek won 51-0 in 2009 and 61-0 in 2010 as it began its ascension into N.C.’s elite class.
High-profile games are common for Mallard Creek, but it’s new for Harding. Entering Friday’s game, Mallard Creek is No. 2 in the Sweet 16. Harding is No. 8.
Both teams have Division I college prospects.
Mallard Creek defensive tackle Jordan Davis and Harding offensive lineman Jovaughn Gwyn are top 25 N.C. seniors, according to ESPN. Harding defensive back Malik Dunlap committed to N.C. State, and Rams junior running back Quavaris Crouch is ranked No. 1 nationally at his position in the class of 2019.
“We knew they had some really good players,” Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieri said, “and they’ve got some momentum coming from the previous year. We thought it was a good time to play them.
“Anytime you go against great athletes, anything can happen. So we expect a four-quarter game, like we always do. But we’ve been in a lot of big games and we know how to prepare for them.”