It had all the telltale signs of an ambush.
There they were – several squad cars and at least one vehicle from the fire department – waiting, their flashing lights illuminating a cold Saturday night in December.
The Denver police had received a tip, one they’d been hoping to hear since their home-town East Lincoln football team bested Franklin 31-21 in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2AA state semifinals eight days prior: The Mustangs had won another state championship.
As word of the Mustangs’ 14-13 win over Washington in the 2AA championship game at Wake Forest’s BB&T Field on December 13 passed over the radio, the police knew what to do. Heck, they’d done it two years before.
“Coming back into town, four or five police cars and the fire department caught up with us and gave the team bus an official escort back to the field house,” said Mike Byus, who has coached the Mustangs (16-0) for the past decade.
“I missed (the escort) my freshman year,” said East Lincoln junior quarterback Chazz Surratt, who threw for 212 yards to earn championship MVP honors. “This time, I got to experience it and, to be honest, it felt like coming home from a college game.”
For Surratt, who played wide receiver on the 2012 championship team, much has changed in two years.
After throwing for 52 touchdowns and rushing for 18 more during the season, Chazz (whose favorite receiving target is now his 6-foot-2 sophomore brother Sage) is now being recruited by the likes of Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.
After making three title appearances in the past seven years, the Mustangs – who were averaging 44 points a game this season entering the title game – have earned their respect and high standing in the community.
Observer columnist Scott Fowler, who lives in close proximity to East Lincoln High School, dubbed the team the “Denver of the East” in a column earlier this season and offered the kind of praise that would turn the Carolina Panthers green with envy.
“Think of the Philadelphia Eagles’ current-day offense under Chip Kelly, but with Steve Young in his San Francisco prime as the quarterback,” Fowler wrote of the experience of taking his children to a Mustangs’ game. “That’s what East Lincoln’s offense looks like in miniature, with coach Byus taking Kelly’s role as offensive guru, and all-everything junior quarterback Chazz Surratt imitating Young.”
It wasn’t until a Week 3 last-second, one-point win over North Lincoln that things really began to click for the Mustangs this season.
“Chazz led us down the field in about 40 seconds and found Damarius Valentine in the end zone for the win,” said Sage, describing the moment that stands out the most to him from this season. “From then on, we just kept getting better and things started rolling.”
Valentine, the team’s offensive MVP who finished the season with 10 touchdowns, is one of 20 seniors that the Mustangs will miss next season.
Byus acknowledged that senior defensive end Triston Dennis (the team’s defensive MVP), who played a huge role in the championship blocking an extra point and forcing a fumble, will be as difficult as anyone to replace.
Byus also noted what a nice job Matt Schenck, the team’s captain, did all season long.
“We’re going to miss all our seniors,” Byus said. “They did a good job holding the team together. Our junior class is talented, but our seniors were willing to play the roles we needed them to play and that’s what makes a good team.”
Asked what his lasting memory from this season will be, Chazz didn’t need much time to think.
“It was hugging my brother after we beat Washington,” he said. “(Sage) wasn’t able to be a part of our championship my freshman year and having him on the field with us made this one special.”
With both brothers coming back looking to repeat as state champions next season, the Denver police might want to consider blocking off the second Saturday night in December now, just to be safe.