Despite losing a pair of all-state players in Devin Flowers and Marquise Williams to graduation, Mallard Creek again has plenty of talent to repeat as I-Meck champions.
But to win the conference, the Mavericks, which finished 13-1 (7-0 in conference play) last season, will have to get past a tough Vance team that finished second in the standings last year with a 11-4 (6-1) record.
The Cougars have some experience defeating Mallard Creek, ending the Mavericks' season in the third round of the playoffs last November. The game between the two schools - Sept. 30 at Vance - could decide the conference champions.
Meanwhile, West Charlotte (8-5, 3-4) had some success last season, but the team could be heading into rebuilding mode after losing 16 seniors - including several key players.
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The Mavericks, coached by Michael Palmieri, should again have the target on their back going into this season.
After going undefeated in the I-Meck regular schedule last season, winning each game by at least 22 points, most teams will seek some revenge.
All-state lineman D.J. Humphries, the No. 3-ranked prospect in the class of 2012 by Rivals.com, returns to lead the way for the Mallard Creek offense. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound senior should get some help from returning running back Jela Duncan, whose speed can be dangerous for opponents.
Duncan, also a senior, rushed for 1,375 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. He also is a threat catching the ball, having led the Mavericks in receptions his sophomore season.
Without Williams this season, the Mavericks could hand the quarterback duties to senior Andrew Goodman, who transferred back to the school after playing at First Assembly last year. He should get some help from receivers Jamel Harbison and Corey Miller.
On defense, where the Mavericks kept seven opponents scoreless last season, defensive end Mohammed Bassie-Kamara, who's 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, should lead the way with linebacker NeKenbra Davis and defensive back Takhare Donalson also making contributions.
Despite losing wide receivers Mike Neal, Ryan Stewart and Calvin Hunter as well as its starting quarterback for the second part of the season, Marc Harris, the Cougars are the closest conference team to giving Mallard Creek a run to an I-Meck title.
The team will be led by Larenz Bryant, a junior running back who made big plays on the ground for Vance last season.
Jalen Latter should be back at quarterback after losing his staring spot to Harris following an injury against Mooresville.
Latter, a junior who started for the Cougars as a freshman, kept a good attitude last season after being demoted, staying involved and even seeing some time at safety. Knowing coach Phil Culicerto, since starting as a freshman, should be a boost for Latter.
Defensively, Stewart's departure hurts in the back, but returning corner Lamar Johnson lowers the blow.
Defensive end/linebacker Brian Smallwood could also come up big for the Cougars.
Losing star running back Jalen "Scoot" Simmons and quarterback Ahmad Brown, West Charlotte will have to find ways to regroup.
Senior T.J. Mixson, who led the team in receiving and saw limited time at quarterback, will need to step up for the Lions to improve upon last year's 8-5 record (3-4 in I-Meck play).
Roger Ognodo, a senior receiver, is slated to be the top returning catcher for the Lions.
Coach Marcus Surratt will also have his hands full on the defensive end, as West Charlotte loses a lot of talent including top tacklers Britton Grier and Ardy Holmes.
West Charlotte, which was fifth in the conference last season, could be looking at another finish in the lower half of the I-Meck.