Mallard Creek won its second straight N.C. 4AA state football championship Saturday at BB&T Field, but it came a little different than the first one.
This time, Mallard Creek fought through a maze of penalties and an other-worldly performance from Wake Forest running back Bryce Love to win 25-14.
In 2013, Mallard Creek ran out to a 52-point lead and overwhelmed Wake Forest 59-21. The Mavericks lost 36 seniors and what amounted to 18 starters from that team but made their way back to the finals – and a rematch with Wake Forest.
“This feels awesome,” Mavericks coach Mike Palmieri said. “Wake Forest gave us all we could handle. They played well enough to win also.”
Mallard Creek jumped out to a 12-0 lead, scoring on two of its first three possessions and making it look easy. Then the Mavericks began to make mistakes: Mallard Creek got bogged down in penalties, including one that erased an 85-yard touchdown from Chancery Bowman that would’ve given it a 19-0 lead. Quite often, first and 10 became first and 15 or second and 26. Mallard Creek’s offense kept coming off the field and Love and Wake Forest kept coming back on it.
Love rushed for 186 yards on 28 carries but had 17 carries for 151 yards in the first half – when Mallard Creek had nine penalties for 80 yards compared to two for 20 for the Cougars.
Love’s touchdown run just before halftime cut the Mavericks’ lead to 12-7. Mallard Creek knew it had to make some adjustments.
“We had to fight as a team and tune out the refs and tune out their players and our leaders had to step up,” said senior defensive lineman Jarell Bright. “We had too many penalties. We had to fight through it.”
Bright and the defense opened the second half with two big stops and championship MVP James Smith led the Mavericks for a big score, pushing the lead to 19-7. Smith – who finished with 186 yards and three TDs rushing, and 108 yards and one score passing – ran 37 yards for the points.
But after getting a blocked punt and the ball at Mallard Creek’s 36, Wake Forest scored again on a 18-yard pass from QB Mack Moore to Brooks Cunningham. Mallard Creek led 19-14 and needed a fourth-quarter answer.
Smith gave them one. Vernon Grier returned the kickoff to the 45 and Smith calmly directed a 6-play, 55-yard, championship-clinching drive. He hit Grier with a 29-yard pass to the 1 and followed that with a 1-yard scoring keeper.
“This was one harder and it feels better,” said senior receiver Kyle Horton, who caught a first-half touchdown pass. “We wanted this. This being my senior year and my last high school football game, I wanted to leave everything on the field. We all did. It was a great crowd, a great atmosphere, a great game. Man, this feels awesome.”