As the two-time reigning state high school football champion, living up to high expectations this season hasn’t been easy for Mallard Creek.
Chasing their third consecutive title has been a mental and emotional challenge for the players, Mavericks coach Mike Palmieri said.
“Expectations were real high coming into this season after winning two state championships, and we had some kids who transferred (to the school) that made them go even higher,” he said.
After surprising losses during the regular season, the Mavericks (12-2) are back in familiar territory, facing East Forsyth (14-0) Friday night in Kernersville in the N.C. 4AA Western Regional final.
Friday’s game will pit two of the state’s top teams, each ranked in the top three in state polls.
“This is my senior year, and we don’t want to go out with a loss,” said James Smith, Mallard Creek’s starting quarterback in the past two state title games.
“We’ve been talking about that since the start of the season. We don’t want to be the ones who let this program down.”
Thanks to past success, the Mavericks began the season ranked among the nation’s top 10 teams and favored to become the second Mecklenburg County team to win three straight state titles since Independence’s run of seven straight between 2000-2006.
But Mallard Creek has had its struggles. The Mavericks lost 31-29 to Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes on a last-second field goal early in the season and saw their shot at a seventh consecutive conference title thwarted with a 31-28 overtime loss to MECKA 4A rival Hough.
“Earlier in the season, everybody was too much into themselves – we had a ‘me-me-me mentality,’ ” Smith said. “The previous years, we were more together, more family-like. That’s because we didn’t have what we have now – we didn’t have a state championship.”
Smith said the losses – especially to Hough, snapping Mallard Creek’s 43-game conference winning streak – were the wake-up call the Mavericks needed.
“It brought everybody back to reality,” he said. “It was like, ‘We can be beat – it’s not all about me; it’s a team thing.’ ”
The results have shown on the field – Mallard Creek has won its past six games, including a 44-0 mauling of Hough in last week’s regional semifinal.
“We now understand what it takes to be a champion, and how fortunate we’ve been to win two state titles,” Palmieri said. “People think it’s easy to do, but it’s not.”
But before the Mavericks can think about another state title game, they must get past the Eagles, the 4AA Western Regional bracket’s top seed.
Like Mallard Creek, East Forsyth has talent on both sides of the ball: Quarterback Noah Smith has thrown for 2,480 yards and 27 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. Running back Christian Beal has 1,635 rushing yards and 22 TDs, and the Eagles’ defense has allowed 16 points in their three playoff wins.
“They’re a really good football team,” Palmieri said. “They’ve got really good players at every positions. They’re 14-0 and they’re the No. 1 seed in the state.
“We expect a tough game, no doubt. We know they want to win – they’re hungry for it, too. Our kids know what’s ahead of us.”
One advantage the Mavericks might have is big-game experience.
The Eagles’ only state championship came in 1992, and they’ve only played in two other Western Regional finals (1991 and 1975).
Mallard Creek enters Friday’s game as a No. 6 seed – its lowest seeding in the past five seasons – which has put the Mavericks on the road for the third straight week.
That might be a blessing in disguise, Palmieri said.
“We’ve got to beat a No. 3 (Butler), a No. 2 (Hough) and now a No. 1 (East Forsyth) to make it to the state championship, all on the road,” he said.
“It’s a challenge, but that’s something we like. We don’t worry about where we play, we just have to do what we do best and we’ll be fine.”