When you drive into the campus at Mallard Creek High on a Wednesday morning, you’re arriving in coach Mike Palmieri’s world.
It’s where he’s built a football powerhouse in north Charlotte.
Mallard Creek has been so successful that it has attracted an endorsement agreement with a major shoe company. It has also captured three straight 4AA state championships.
Once again, the Mavericks are big, fast and have a large, vocal fan following. They also have 10 Division I college recruits in their senior class, including six who are generally considered among the state’s best: linemen T.J. Moore (South Carolina), Eric Douglas (South Carolina) and Grant Gibson (N.C. State); defensive back Jacobe Clement (N.C. State); receiver Ryan Jones (North Carolina); and linebacker Larry Matkins (Colorado State).
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And they have their share of detractors, as most successful Mecklenburg County teams have had. But whereas Mike Newsome, the coach of Butler’s most recent dynasty, and Tom Knotts, who led teams at West Charlotte and Independence in the previous two decades, were charismatic and commanded attention, Palmieri is much quieter.
He stands at midfield during a scrimmage with Fort Mill’s Nation Ford Wednesday morning. He’s wearing a floppy hat and his ever-present dark sunglasses. Palmieri doesn’t say much. He allows his assistants to coach, but when he barks, he barks loudest.
Palmieri’s world seems to be just working fine. Mallard Creek is 96-28 in his nine previous seasons, including 93-9 since the start of his third year. This season’s’s team, like the past several, is nationally ranked in preseason polls, including No. 13 in USA Today and No. 10 in MaxPreps.
“We want the kids to play loose,” Palmieri said. “They know the expectations are high and everyone is gunning for us. That helps us to be a better program and to be better coaches, just knowing all that.”
In the scrimmage, many of Mallard Creek’s star players - like Jones, rated the state’s No. 2 overall recruit by ESPN - don’t play a down. Others play a few snaps. Some of that is because the Mavericks are saving up for their scrimmage Thursday night at nationally ranked Northwestern Rock Hill, the reigning S.C. 4A Division II champion.
Some of it, though, is by design.
“We try to build our depth through the year,” Palmieri said, “so there’s not much drop off. Part of the plan of our program is to get kids on the field and not care about the score, but building for the following year.
“We’ve been able to do that and get our (second- and third-team players) a lot of reps. It hurts you with scores, when people say you don’t win by 50, but we’re happy with that. We like our kids to get playing time and we’re building for two or three years down the road.”
Palmieri counts at least seven players in his junior class who are major-college recruits, including lineman Jawan Tate and linebackers Kalen Allen and Cam Lowery, a Gastonia Ashbrook transfer who was Big South 3A conference defensive player of the year as a sophomore. That trio is attracting attention from ACC and SEC schools.
So while the 2016 season appears promising at Mallard Creek, Palmieri is already devising ways to assure the Mavericks stay strong in 2017, 2018 and beyond.
“We hope it goes on for awhile, as long as we have consistent coaching and the players buy in,” Palmieri said. “We feel it can go longer. I see consistency down the road.
“We’ve got a great class of ninth graders that came in last year. We had a great jayvee last season and we’ve got some good 10th graders and really good juniors scattered into this (varsity) team now. I hope we keep it going for awhile.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr
Observer Sweet 16: Mallard Creek Mavericks
The Observer continues with previews of teams in its annual preseason Sweet 16 high school football preseason poll. The teams will be revealed in alphabetical order. The poll, with numerical order, will be released following the previews.
Head coach: Mike Palmieri (10th season)
2015 record: 14-2 (5-1 MECKA 4A conference)
Key returning starters: Ryan Jones, Sr., WR (6-3, 220); Grant Gibson, Sr., C/DL (6-2, 285); Travaris Moores, Sr., OL (6-6, 285); Eric Douglas, Sr., OL (6-5, 290); Darnell Walker, Sr., RB (5-10, 215); Kalen Allen, Sr., MLB (6-1, 230); Isaac Hampton, Sr., DL (6-2, 265); Larry Matkins, Sr., LB (6-2, 220); Deonte Grier, Sr., CB (5-10, 175).
Key newcomers: Chauncey Caldwell, Sr., QB (6-2, 220); Cameren Lowery, Jr., LB (6-0, 235); Jacobe Clement, Sr., CB (6-1, 180).
Returning starters: 11 (5 offense; 6 defense)
Returning lettermen: 46
Outlook: With another loaded roster - led by senior receiver Ryan Jones (North Carolina), linemen Gibson (N.C. State) and Douglas (South Carolina), Mallard Creek will again be a favorite to win the N.C. 4AA title.