Entering his first season as boys varsity soccer head coach at Mallard Creek High, Frank Higginbotham didn't really know what to expect.
The Mavericks were a playoff team last year and, although young, have lots of talent this season.
"We started a little rocky, but we are starting to come into our own. It is slowly all coming together," Higginbotham said. "By the time we get into our conference play, hopefully we will have all of the pieces of the puzzle together."
The Mavericks start just three seniors and have lots of players with no previous varsity experience. Even so, they have ascended to the No. 12 spot in the Observer's Sweet 16 with a 5-1 record. And it seems they're getting better each game.
One big reason is senior midfielder/defender Cole Jameson, the Mavericks' leader and most experienced player.
"So far, we have lived up to my expectations," said Jameson. "I knew coming into the year I would have more responsibility and that we needed to mold as a team."
Jameson, an all-conference and all-state performer a year ago, anchors the defense and is the one player teammates seek out for answers.
"Having Cole is a huge positive for me and the rest of the guys," Higginbotham said. "He is the heartbeat of this team and is always pushing his teammates to get better. He is a positive leader for us and has done a great job making sure everyone is on the same page and playing together."
Jameson has been a captain the last two years, and he knew this year would be different. He said he loves his role as leader and has helped shape the new-look Mavericks, who have more than held their own.
"I knew that if we were going to have a chance, it was going to start with me," Jameson said. "I like being the leader people look to, and think I have done a pretty good job of it."
A recent 6-5 win against Concord Jay M. Robinson illustrated the team's talent as well as its youth.
After cruising to a 5-1 lead in the second half, Mallard Creek let its focus get away and found itself barely hanging on for the one-goal win. Jameson took personal responsibility for letting the team's focus trail off.
"That is the biggest thing people ask me. ... How do I go into games, and how I prepare for certain situations," Jameson said. "I try to tell my teammates that if we can stay focused for the whole game every time we take the field, we can be very good."
Jameson said he believes this team can be better than the team that was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs a year ago. Last year's team was full of individuals, but this team seems to be working together as one group.
He has played on teams with the best players in the area since 2006 and knows what good teams look like. A member of the North Mecklenburg Soccer Club's under-16 team in 2010 and of the 2009 Red Premier team, Jameson has gained experience that he hopes will lead the Mavericks to the top of the conference.
It won't be easy. Vance has gotten off to a quick start. Hough and Lake Norman are ranked ahead of the Mavericks in the Sweet 16 and will be tough challenges.
"There is no doubt we have a very strong conference, especially at the top," Higginbotham said.
"Once we enter our conference schedule, we will have 14-16 games where, each time out, we are in a battle. We have to be ready to go. So now is the time to get better and work out the kinks."
Jameson is as much a leader in the classroom as he is on the field. He is ranked 11th in his class academically and credits his parents and brother with instilling his commitment to education. He said they have put high expectations on him from an early age.
He has delivered in the classroom and said he hopes to play in college. He is drawing interest from UNC Greensboro and others, but right now is focused on getting Mallard Creek back to the playoffs.
"I'm here for advice and love being in this role. I don't like to get on the guys if they aren't focused, but I will if I have to," Jameson said. "I think they respect me and know what I am trying to do."
"We have a lot of talent on this team, especially in the skill positions. If we get into a good rhythm and keep focused, we can win this conference. It is my job to get us where we need to be, and I look forward to doing it."