A big reason Mallard Creek is opening its high school football season at Scotland County Thursday night is because neither perennial N.C. power could find anyone else to play.
Mallard Creek has won three of the past four 4AA state championships and has been a mainstay in national polls. The 2017 Mavericks are ranked No. 3 in the N.C. Preps and Carolina Preps preseason statewide polls.
Scotland County, No. 2 in each poll, features the nation’s best senior running back and has played in two 4A state championship games since 2011. In the past six years, the Fightin’ Scots have won a 4A state championship and compiled an 80-7 record.
That kind of success has made it difficult for either team to schedule nonconference games.
“Neither one of us could find a dance partner other than each other,” said Scotland coach Richard Bailey, who is entering his sixth season at the school. “We both needed a game, and neither of us really wanted to play, but it’s great for the fans, and (Mallard Creek coach) Mike (Palmieri) or myself, we don’t run from competition and we’re not afraid to play anybody. ...
“But this came about because of necessity.”
Bailey estimates that less than 10 percent of the high school football teams in North Carolina have a real shot to win state championships, and that gap makes it difficult for powerhouse teams like Mallard Creek and Scotland to schedule.
Weaker teams worry about embarrassing losses to teams often deeper, bigger and more talented. That’s led to state powers playing each other more often in the regular season.
Like Mallard Creek and Scotland, coach Tom Knotts’ Dutch Fork (S.C.) team is a state power finding it difficult to schedule games. The Silver Foxes will open their season Friday at Independence High, where Knox formerly coached.
“There’s some really good teams,” said Knotts, who has won nine state titles, including two at Dutch Fork, one at West Charlotte and six at Independence. “But ... coaches ain’t like they used to be. You used to play anybody. But people won’t play you now. You get good, and then all the good teams in South Carolina just end up playing each other over and over. ...
“You play good teams (more often) and you have more of a chance of getting hurt and getting beat up, so you don’t want to play the best teams there are every week, and you want to do what the colleges do. They always have a couple easy games in there.”
More than ever, games against lesser nonconference opponents are scarce for the elite teams.
Two of Scotland County’s four nonconference games are against teams ranked among the top 5 in the Carolina Preps N.C. 4A poll: Mallard Creek Thursday and at West Mecklenburg Sept. 15. Mallard Creek will play three top 20 teams to start its season: Scotland Thursday, against No. 6 Butler at home Aug. 25 and at No. 16 Harding Sept. 15.
“That’s what we do,” Mallard Creek’s Palmieri said. “We want to put our kids in those situations to see where we are. It’s something that works for us and we’ve been doing it for six or seven years, and you’ll see what’s good and what’s bad playing a really good team like Scotland.”
Palmieri’s team finished 9-3 last season, ending a seven-year run of double-digits wins. The Mavericks return five starters, including preseason all-state defensive lineman Jordan Davis. They’re working in a new quarterback, 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior Jadyn Washington, who led an unbeaten junior varsity last season. Palmieri likes his running back corps, which goes four deep and features 5-10, 215-pound Najzae Bryant.
Palmieri estimates that “five to 10” seniors will become Division I college football players.
“It’s an inexperience thing more than anything with this group,” he said. “The talent is there. We’ve got some good players.”
Scotland County, 14-1 last season, returns 13 starters, including seven on offense. Georgia-bound running back Zamir White ran for nearly 1,700 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. At 6-1, 220 pounds, he’s considered the nation’s best senior at his position.
But teammate Syheam “Smiley” McQueen (6-1, 210) was the conference player of the year last season after White missed games with an injury. McQueen rushed for 1,317 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Bailey said McQueen, a junior, and White will often be in the backfield together Thursday, and one will sometimes move to receiver. But he said he’s excited to test his running backs -- and his team -- against an elite program.
“You get to play against what’s been one of the most dominant programs the past six or seven years in our state,” Bailey said. “If we lose, it’s still a great learning experience. The last two years, our only loss has been in the last (playoff) game and we’ve not been able to recover.
“You can recover if you lose now. And a really truly great program wants to see how good they are. This is a chance for us both to do just that.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr