Before his players lined up against Butler on opening weekend, Mallard Creek High head coach Mike Palmieri said he knew his team had the talent not only to beat Butler but to defeat anyone in the state if his Mavericks played their game.
The Mavericks are big, fast, experienced and very talented. They boast some of the best skill players in the area, including high college prospects Jela Duncan, Marquez North and new quarterback Andrew Goodman.
Palmieri was quoted as saying the best of that group is senior Jamel Harbison, a 5-11, 190-pound speedster who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and can bench press more than 255 pounds.
Harbison finished last season with 62 catches for 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns.
To call Harbison versatile is an understatement. He's listed as a wide receiver, but he is much more than that. He plays defensive back, returns kicks, returns punts, runs the ball, punts, occasionally throws passes and does whatever else is asked of him.
Along with the receiving numbers, he averaged 46 yards per punt, runs track and is a star baseball player, batting .329 with two home runs and 28 RBI.
"Anything coach calls on me to do, I can do it," Harbison said. "I put everything I have into anything he asks of me. I try to do all I can to help the team in any way."
Against Butler Aug. 19, Harbison's skills were on display. He scored the opening touchdown, an 18-yard reception from Goodman. He converted a crucial fake punt run for a first down, punted, returned kicks and made the play of the game.
With the Mavericks up by just one point midway through the fourth quarter, Harbison threw an option pass to North for the clinching touchdown. He then helped Duncan and the Mavericks offense play keep-away to secure the victory.
"The Butler win was nice for us and the program, but we are not stopping to celebrate. We have work to do," Harbison said before the Mavericks took out Sun Valley 52-21 on Aug. 26.
"We have been getting after it in practice, and each day coach is making us work harder. We know what we want, and we have the team to do it. We have to stay humble and hungry."
What they want is the state championship that eluded them last year. The Mavericks finished 13-1, but the one loss stuck with them all summer.
"We have a picture in our locker room of the Vance team celebrating on our fields," he said. "We have had to look at it all summer, and it motivates us every day."
Mallard Creek's football program has been on the rise the past few years. Now that it's the area's No. 1-ranked team, Harbison said, a target is on their backs, and teams will give them their best shot.
As long as the Mavericks stay focused, Harbison said, it doesn't matter who they play. If they are playing well and minimize mistakes, they can and should beat everyone.
The Mavericks, who were to play Philip O. Berry on Friday, have a tough schedule. After the Cardinal, they will take on Mooresville on Sept. 16 and then play at Lake Norman Sept. 23 before a game they have been looking forward to: a matchup at Vance on Sept. 30.
"We are going to keep working hard and making sure we are doing all we can," Harbison said
College coaches have been taking notice since Harbison burst on the scene last year. He has received at least 14 offers from major programs but has narrowed his choices to four: Wake Forest, Minnesota, Vanderbilt and East Carolina.
"It is a huge decision for me and something I am not going to rush into," Harbison said"
For now, he is focused on leading the Mavericks through the regular season and back to the playoffs. He said working hard and pushing himself and his teammates will be worth the effort.
Harbison and the Mavericks want to avoid another playoff letdown.
"I want that state championship, and I want it bad," Harbison said.