Before this football season, Athletevault.com ranked the top 200 players from the Carolinas. The website included five Mallard Creek stars.
Offensive standouts D.J. Humphries, Jela Duncan, Jamel Harbison and Andrew Goodman were named. The only Maverick defensive player to make it was Takhare Donalson, a 5-10 defensive back the site referred to as the field general for Mallard Creek, the 10th-ranked team in the nation, according to Maxpreps.com.
"We only have four captains, and I'm the only one from the defense," Donalson said. "I think the guys look up to me some. I am the only senior returning starter on defense, and so I try to make sure I am on top of everything."
So far he has been on top of everything. Donalson had two interceptions in the Mavericks' 45-3 win against Mooresville. Last week against West Charlotte, he had two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown.
"Donalson is very quick and tested off the charts on his one-on-one," Mike Farrell of Rivals.com said of Donalson.
"He is quick and explosive and did a good job against bigger receivers. He is a leaper who can stay with the best of them, and he can change direction."
He has five interceptions so far this year. Last season he had seven interceptions and scored two special-teams touchdowns.
The Mavericks started the season against Butler, Sun Valley and Phillip O. Berry. They gave up 59 points in those first three games.
Since then, Mallard Creek has allowed 29 total points in six games, and 20 of those were against Vance.
"As a captain and a leader on defense, I have been talking to the guys all year. I'm not used to giving up points like we did early in the year," Donalson said.
"Last year we had eight shutouts, and nobody would have been scoring like that on us. Some of the guys were young coming into the year, but we got it right, and we have improved a lot since the beginning of the year."
The Mavericks have outscored their opponents 447-88 on the year and 325-29 over the last six games.
"Our offense is clicking on all cylinders, and they are really talented," Donalson said.
"I tell them and our coaches each game to not get too comfortable over there on the sidelines when they come off the field. I tell my boy (quarterback) Andrew (Goodman) we are going to make this quick and to keep doing what he does. We do that and have (running back) Jela (Duncan) keep toting the rock, we are a good team."
While the Mavericks have had a lot of blowout wins, head coach Mike Palmieri will not let them become complacent.
Donalson said he is on his teammates every day in practice.
Duncan once said there is no easy game, and any team on any night can beat Mallard Creek.
"He is right: Anyone can beat us any game. There are no soft games, and just because a team comes in with a down record, they have good players," Donalson said.
"That is why we watch film every day. We are out here practicing in the rain and trying to get better each day. We can't overlook anyone and take it one game at a time."
The Mavericks have stayed on point and seem destined to win their first state title. That title escaped them last year after they lost to Vance in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs.
"I see that headline in my head every day: 'Vance AdVances,' " Donalson said of a newspaper photo of the Cougars celebrating after knocking off Mallard Creek last year.
"That is motivation for all of us. We are ready to go get it this year."
Donalson said he feels a calm when he steps on the field, and he is excited to try to lead Mallard Creek to its first state title.
"The football field is where I feel most comfortable. I can get everything out when I step on this field," Donalson said. "I love this. I really do. I think if God keeps blessing me, then football can take me a long way. Football is truly what I love to do."
In case they needed added motivation, Donalson said, his coaches tell him all the time that college coaches will notice players on the state championship team. College coaches are noticing Donalson and his teammates.
Clemson, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Texas Christian, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Maryland and others have expressed interest in Donalson, who will wait until the season is over to decide where he will spend the next four years.
As Donalson and his teammates make their run toward their first state title, they believe they are prepared to go all the way.
"We are going to win because we out-work everybody else," Donalson said. "I honestly think that we work harder than anyone else does. We are here every day, we don't go home when it rains, and we are out here busting our butts 24/7, " Donalson said.
"Really we have been working 25/8, if there is such a thing. That sums up how hard we have been working," he said.
"We want it bad, and that is what we have focused on since last year."