University City

Star running back committed to goal: the state title

Mallard Creek started the season with its signature win over nationally ranked Butler and has not let off the gas since.

The Mavericks' most recent win, 55-20 over Vance, avenged their only defeat from a season ago. More important, it laid to rest their 10-7 playoff loss to the Cougars, of which they were reminded each day since last December.

Every time the Mallard Creek football team walked into its locker room, the players saw a picture of the Cougars celebrating on the Mavericks' home field.

Jela Duncan, the Mavericks ultra-talented 5-10, 198-pound running back, used to tear the picture off the wall each time he went into the weight room. On Friday, as he has done all season, he carved up the Cougars defense for 174 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns and a caught a third touchdown.

Duncan has 1,071 rushing yards and nine rushing scores through six games.

"He is carrying us right now and has been playing great," said head coach Mike Palmieri. "Duncan has speed, power and great hands. He is the total package and does everything we ask him to do."

The senior ran for 1,375 and 17 touchdowns a year ago, despite missing three games with a sprained ankle. He has been sensational this year, leading the Mavericks to a 6-0 record and a No. 23 national ranking by

As a sophomore, Duncan played wide receiver, since he was behind a senior on the running back depth chart. He led the Mavericks in receiving that year and was named to the all-conference team.

"Coach told me that I needed to play receiver if I wanted to play," Duncan said. "I am a running back at heart, but that is what I needed to do, and that is what I did. I will do whatever the team needs me to do, I just want to win."

This year, Duncan is putting up huge numbers. He had 217 rushing yards against Butler and 192 and four touchdowns against Lake Norman, after torching them for 232 yards on just six carries a year ago.

His individual numbers are attracting a lot of attention from college coaches. He has scholarship offers from schools including Wake Forest, South Carolina, Purdue, East Carolina and Pittsburgh.

Duncan carries a 3.5 grade-point average (on a four-point scale) and said Duke is still the front-runner, but he is in no hurry to decide where he will go to school. Despite the college interest, Duncan, who ranks 35th among the country's best high school running backs, is not ready to stop working hard toward the Mavericks' goal.

"I don't feel any pressure at all. I want to go out there and play ball and have fun with my teammates. We want to win together as a team. Everyone has a role and does their part," he said.

"There are a lot of things I can improve on. I try to do whatever the team needs and try to get better each day as a runner, a pass catcher, a blocker. I want to be a more complete back."

The Mavericks have outscored their opponents 277-82 on the year. Their final four games of the season are against North Mecklenburg, Hopewell, West Charlotte and Hough, teams that have a combined 10-17 record.

Some teams would get complacent and try to cruise into the playoffs on talent alone. Not the Mavericks.

"We want to be clicking on all cylinders," Duncan said. "I have been in the program for four years, and I want the state championship. I want to get it done," Duncan said.

"We still have some improving to do. We practice hard every day, watch film and go over each play from the games and are trying to get better each day in practice," he said. "We cannot get complacent and are all hungry for the school's first state title."

To get that title, the Mavericks may have to go through Butler again. The Bulldogs have outscored their opponents 192-50 since the teams last met and are ranked No. 38 in the nation by

"We look forward to facing them again if it happens," Duncan said. "We know they would be hungry to beat us and are a good team. But if we play our game, we are tough to beat, too."

Duncan said the Vance loss last year reminds the Mavericks that they are not invincible. While they are talented, anything can happen.

"Anybody can beat us," Duncan said. "We can't get complacent or overlook anybody. We have to stay on the grind, get better all the time and just keep it rolling."

Duncan is the Mavericks' first option on an offense full of future Division I talent. He knows defenses will be geared to stop him, and he's up for the challenge.

"He does whatever the team needs him to do," Palmieri said. "He can run the ball, catch and block. He'll do anything we need and is a team guy."

Duncan will play a key role in how far the Mavericks go this year. He knows where he wants to lead them.

"We are working at it each day," Duncan said. "Coach makes sure everyone is focused and we are hungry for it. We want to go out on top; that is always the goal. We want it."