The one thing that these N.C. 4AA state champions from Mallard Creek have shown – again and again – is resiliency.
They lost a marquee game to Butler early in the season, getting a celebration penalty after a score that forced a long missed PAT that might’ve forced overtime and a possible win. But the Mavericks – who lost 18 starters and 36 seniors from the 2013 state champs – came together and didn’t lose after that.
Down 30 in the third quarter at rival Hough in October, with the crowd going rock concert loud and rock concert nuts, Mallard Creek rallied to win 37-30. Up 41-14 at Lake Norman last weekend, the Mavericks were forced to watch N.C. Gatorade player of the year Josh Ladowski begin to work his magic and rally his team. Mallard Creek didn’t flinch. They won 48-41 on the road in the semifinals.
Saturday, they took the best shot Wake Forest could give them, battling some nerves, 107 yards in penalties and a pumped up Cougars team to win 25-14. Since Mecklenburg County Class 4A teams began dominating N.C. football in 2000, most of the Mecklenburg state finals have been blowouts, like Mallard Creek’s 59-21 win over Wake Forest last year, but this one came down to the fourth quarter. Mallard Creek’s lead was cut to 19-14 and Wake Forest’s crowd rose, sensing a big upset.
But as they had done all season, Mallard Creek found its inner resolve.
“You know,” senior receiver Kyle Horton said, “we have made plays all year long. Nothing rattles us. We wanted this.”
Junior QB James Smith – who finished his season with 4,698 total yards – led the Mavericks on what probably is the best drive in school history. The momentum was against them and even Horton admitted that Wake Forest had been dominating the line of scrimmage.
“They have a heckuva defensive line,” he said, “with three people over 6-foot-5. They make you adjust.”
On the biggest drive of his life, Smith adjusted. He passed for 15 yards. He ran for 13. He handed to Chancery Bowman for 2, and then he hit Vernon Grier for 29, moving the ball to the Wake Forest 1. The championship clinching score was a QB keeper, after a fake, over the left guard. He dove through two tacklers to get it.
“James is a heckuva player,” Horton said. “He’s most definitely the team MVP.”
And with Smith leading them as he has all season, Mallard Creek came up with big plays when it needed them most. That’s championship DNA.
“This win is a little sweeter feeling than last year,” said defensive lineman Jarell Bright. “We had to overcome adversity and fight for what we wanted. But in situations like that, I have faith and confidence in my teammates. We stick together as a team, and the bond we have on and off the field is just great.”
Great enough for back-to-back championships. Great enough to be North Carolina’s best team all over again.