In a small town they call “Denver of the East,” 25 miles northwest of Charlotte, a high school football colossus has quietly arisen.
East Lincoln will play for the state 2AA football championship Saturday at 4 p.m., facing Washington at Wake Forest’s home field in Winston-Salem. It will be the third time in the past seven years that the Mustangs have gotten this far – they also won the state title in 2012 and made it to the final before losing in 2008.
Not only are the Mustangs really good, but they are great fun to watch. I live only 3 miles from the school, and a few times every season I round up my older boys and we go watch East Lincoln play just for the sheer entertainment of it. To lure a sportswriter who gets to watch games for free to pay to sit in the stands – well, East Lincoln is doing something right.
Think of the Philadelphia Eagles’ current-day offense under Chip Kelly, but with Steve Young in his San Francisco prime as the quarterback. That’s what East Lincoln’s offense looks like in miniature, with coach Mike Byus taking Kelly’s role as offensive guru, and all-everything junior quarterback Chazz Surratt – a dual-threat lefty responsible for a ridiculous 70 touchdowns so far in this 15-0 season – imitating Young.
“I don’t think we’ve huddled all year,” Byus said.
The Mustangs generally line up in the shotgun, with Surratt at quarterback and his younger brother, Sage Surratt, as one of the four receivers.
Byus calls the formation and the play from the sideline. Then comes the snap, and what happens next is often dazzling. East Lincoln averages 44 points per game and has scored at least 28 in every contest.
The Surratt brothers deserve a lot of the credit for this season. Sometimes mistaken for twins, they are only 14 months apart and are identical in height at 6-foot-2.
Chazz is being recruited by just about everyone you can name and will be a major-college quarterback somewhere. North Carolina, N.C. State and Duke are heavily involved with him. A Tennessee assistant coach dropped by the day I was in Byus’ office this week.
Besides throwing for 52 touchdowns this season and running for another 18, he is also No. 5 academically in the junior class.
Sage is No. 1 academically in the sophomore class. He’s not as heavily recruited yet, but it’s close. They want to play side by side in college, too, so the school that gets them will probably need to come up with two scholarships.
“When we get deeper into the recruiting, we’re going to make that a point of emphasis,” Chazz Surratt said.
“We definitely want to play together,” Sage Surratt said.
East Lincoln is a lot more than those two (who also combined for 38 points per game last season in basketball to lead a 24-4 Mustangs team), however.
To start with, there’s Byus, 53, a West Virginia native with an easy smile and an affinity for throwing the football. He came to East Lincoln in 2005 and has since won 109 games in 10 years, turning what had been a mediocre football program into one of the state’s best.
He also is the school’s athletics director.
East Lincoln High has long been a touchstone for the Denver community, which sits on the west side of Lake Norman and is still small enough that the recent opening of a local Dunkin Donuts store was greeted like the arrival of Santa Claus.
Folks walk the East Lincoln track that encircles the football field to exercise. The high school football schedule is posted in local restaurants far more often than the Carolina Panthers’ schedule.
Somewhat undersized compared to its 2012 state title team, this East Lincoln squad plays swarming defense to disguise a size deficiency.
“We’re a small team, but we hit hard,” linebacker Matt Schenck said.
East Lincoln has several players who play both ways at times and one who does it constantly – Damarius Valentine, a combo wide receiver and cornerback who is 5-9 and 160 pounds. Valentine, though, is as explosive as the firecrackers that explode over the stadium every Fourth of July when East Lincoln hosts the annual community fireworks show.
“I like cornerback better, because I like to hit,” Valentine said. “That, to me, is better than catching touchdown passes.”
Valentine has caught 15 of Chazz Surratt’s touchdown passes this season, second only to Sage Surratt’s 17 touchdowns. Chazz Surratt, incidentally, plays some linebacker and cornerback in third-and-long situations and blocked the last extra point against North Lincoln to preserve East Lincoln’s 28-27 win.
Because of players like Valentine and the Surratts, East Lincoln’s possessions are often very short.
This sounds like a misprint, but it’s not. In a third-round home playoff game against county rival Lincolnton two weeks ago, East Lincoln ran 24 plays and held the ball nine minutes. Lincolnton ran 75 plays and held the ball 39 minutes.
Because the Mustangs scored touchdowns on five of those 24 plays, though, they still won 35-14 in front of about 4,000 fans.
Now East Lincoln is looking for one final victory in Winston-Salem. A bonfire was scheduled Thursday night for the team, followed by dinner at a local Methodist church Friday.
Then the caravan heads out Saturday morning – a couple of buses and dozens of cars making the 75-minute drive together, hoping to bring one more title home to the “Denver of the East.”