For the second straight Friday night, the Mallard Creek Mavericks started the fourth quarter staring down a big MECKA 4A football conference loss.
But Coach Mike Palmieri’s team, locked in a tight defensive game with rival Vance at home, came out with a 29-22 win that puts them in the driver’s seat for another conference title.
“You make big plays, take advantage of breaks when you get them and you find yourself a win,” Palmieri said.
The Mavericks, ranked No. 1 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 (8-1, 4-0), didn’t have to come from quite as far behind as they did in the previous Friday’s 37-30 win over Hough, when they erased a 30-0 deficit.
But the visiting Cougars (6-2, 3-1), ranked No. 9, held a 22-14 lead starting the fourth quarter in a game that had been dominated by defense for the first three.
“I know some people were thinking this would be a shootout,” Palmieri said. “But this was a great defensive game. Both teams know each other’s offenses pretty well.”
Mallard Creek trimmed the Vance lead to 22-21 with an 81-yard drive that started late in the third quarter and ended in Chancery Bowman’s 25-yard touchdown run on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Palmieri said he decided against a two-pointer to go for the tie at that point. “We didn’t want to go chasing points. We knew we’d get another possession.”
And two possessions later, the Mavericks got the opportunity they’d been waiting for when a low-trajectory Vance punt bounced off an up back, and Mallard Creek defensive back Marquise Gaddy recovered at the Cougars’ 10 with four minutes to play.
Two plays later, quarterback James Smith scored the game-winner on a 1-yard run, and he trotted in untouched for the two-point conversion run.
Smith rushed 14 times for 71 yards and completed 9-of-21 passes for 146 yards.
“The fourth quarter is one where we feel like we can excel,” Palmieri said. “But I don’t think we’ve played our best football yet.”
Vance, led by quarterback Omar Baker’s 12-of-25 passing for 221 yards, had stayed with the Mavericks step-for-step in a tight first half.
Mallard Creek scored first on a 30-yard return of a recovered fumble by Jarell Bright, but the Cougars matched it on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Baker to Myles Dorn.
Smith tossed a 45-yard scoring pass to tight end Mahlon Medley to put Mallard Creek back up 14-7 in the second quarter, but Vance matched it with a 65-yard run with a recovered fumble by Trinity Roberts 15 seconds before halftime. A missed PAT made it a 14-13 game at the break.
The Cougars grabbed a 19-14 lead on a 9-yard run by Baker on their opening possession of the second half, cashing in on a interception by Dorn, and added a 25-yard field goal by Samir Mila.
Mallard Creek travels to Kannapolis A.L. Brown, and Vance is at North Meck in MECKA 4A games on Friday.