For five of the past six seasons, either Butler High’s Bulldogs or Mallard Creek’s Mavericks has won the state football championship in North Carolina’s largest and most difficult class.
Butler won in 2009, ’10 and ’12. Mallard Creek has won the past two seasons. Greensboro Page won in 2011, getting past Butler in the state quarterfinals and Mallard Creek in the semifinals. Both games were played in Greensboro.
Throughout this run of dominance, Butler and Mallard Creek have always faced each other. When Butler visits Mallard Creek at 7 Friday night, it’ll mark the eighth time the teams have met in five seasons. This year, Mallard Creek (1-0) is No. 1 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll. Butler (1-0) is No. 2.
“I think it’s obvious that both of these teams have been the standard in 4A football when it comes to just pure dominance at the high school level,” said Chris Hughes, founder and senior analyst for Carolina Preps, a website that tracks high school football in North Carolina.
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“I think they’re carrying on the standard before them set by (coach) Tommy Knotts at Independence and at West Charlotte before that. This lineage of teams continues, for lack of a better word, to own the 4A ranks.”
Knotts took West Charlotte to three N.C. 4A finals in the ’90s, winning in 1995 before leaving for Independence in 2000.The Patriots went to eight straight finals from 2000 to 2007, winning a record seven in a row, including 2004 when Knotts spent one season as an assistant coach at Duke. He returned to the high school in 2005.
Then Butler coach Mike Newsome, in the same Southwestern 4A conference as Knotts, worked tirelessly to get his program to Independence’s level. As Butler rose, Mallard Creek followed a similar trajectory.
Mallard Creek and Butler have been nationally ranked multiple times. Mallard Creek is ranked as high as No. 7 nationally and is a favorite to win a third straight state title. Statewide, Hughes said, there’s a bit of resentment and fatigue beginning to grow.
That’s how you build a state champonship-quality team and program, by playing the best competition. Us and Butler, we’ve done that and it’s helped us both come playoff time over the past five or six years.
Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieri
“You always hear people say, ‘CMS has an open enrollment policy,’ which, of course, they don’t,” Hughes said. “It’s just what people seem to think across the state. There’s a level of resentment from coaches in the Raleigh area who say, ‘We’re playing for second place.’
“But a lot of the coaches I’ve spoken with, the very good 4A coaches in Durham and Richmond and Scotland counties, they look at it as a measuring stick.
“They’re glad Charlotte is doing well because they want to aspire to get to that level. But in terms of fans out there, I do think certain fans see it as, ‘Oh well, why even bother going to the state title game because Charlotte is going to win it.’ I certainly sense some fatigue.”
Locally, the rivalry between the teams continues to attract large crowds and attention.
Mallard Creek won the first meeting in 2011. Since then, the teams have played six times, including three playoff matchups. Two of the postseason meetings were in the N.C. 4AA Western Regional championship game, or state semifinals.
Mallard Creek leads the all-time series 4-3.
“Everybody wants to see the top two teams play,” Butler coach Brian Hales said. “Fortunately for us and them, we’ve been able to sustain that. The kids on both sides have a great deal of respect for each other and recognize these are both very good programs.
“We have a really good relationship with their coaching staff. Me and (Mallard Creek’s Mike) Palmieri talk and text quite often.”
Like Hales, Palmieri says playing an opponent of this caliber each season helps his team get better.
“We both are trying to be the best team out there,” Palmieri said. “That’s how you build a state championship-quality team and program, by playing the best competition. Us and Butler, we’ve done that and it’s helped us both come playoff time over the past five or six years.”
Friday, Palmieri’s team will be seen as a favorite. He returned the bulk of last season’s state championship team and is coming off a dominating 58-6 win last Saturday against 4A power Independence at Memorial Stadium. Hughes of Carolina Preps said Mallard Creek could become historically good.
“The team we’re looking at now is reminiscent of the 2000-03 Independence run where they seemed to get better every year,” he said.
Hales said he was impressed watching the Mavericks beat Independence and knows his team can’t give Mallard Creek short fields and turnovers, which is what the Patriots did.
Butler has one offensive starter back on the offensive line and a new quarterback, junior Davis Cheek, but Hales said his team is ready to play well at Mallard Creek. Butler won last season’s regular-season meeting 28-27 in the same underdog role.
“That’s what’s great about playing this game,” Hales said. “It forces kids to produce and play at a greater speed and with a lot more intensity.
“That’s what’s good about playing out-of-conference games against sharp opponents like Mallard Creek and Richmond County. It forces you to step your game up in a hurry.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; @langstonwertzjr
N.C. 4AA championship results
Mallard Creek 25, Wake Forest 14
Mallard Creek 59, Wake Forest 21
Butler 56, Fayetteville Britt 28
Greensboro Paige 35, Garner 21*
Butler 44, Wake Forest Rolesville 0
Butler 48, Fayetteville Britt 17
*Page beat Butler in the state quarterfinals and Mallard Creek in the state semifinals.
Note: Mallard Creek beat Butler 56-14 in the 2013 N.C. 4AA semifinals; Butler beat Mallard Creek 27-10 in the 2012 N.C. 4AA semifinals.