Mallard Creek beat Hough 20-10 at home Friday to reach its fourth state championship game in five seasons.
In the history of Mecklenburg County public school football, only one team has ever had a better run: when Independence made eight straight state championship games from 2000-07. And Mavericks coach Mike Palmieri said this fourth trip is the most satisfying of all.
Mallard Creek won three straight state championships from 2013-15. Those teams gripped the state with the type dynasty it had not seen since the great Independence run of seven straight titles a decade earlier. Those Mallard Creek teams were 45-3 and were full of college recruits. Those teams were nationally ranked and pretty heavy favorites to win the title every year.
But in 2016, Mallard Creek struggled with penalties and struggled to keep the momentum. The 9-3 record was the school’s first season without double-digit wins since 2008. Worse, Mallard Creek was bounced in the second round of playoffs by Mecklenburg County rival Butler.
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Mallard Creek wasn’t used to going home in the second round.
“Last year,” Mavericks coach Mike Palmieri said, “we laid an egg and our kids were determined to get back this year. And it feels great, let me tell you. This team is a little bit different. We’ve been battling injuries all year and we’ve played a brutal schedule, and we’ve really been finding ways to beat good teams.”
Mallard Creek started the season with 19 new starters. Now, three starters are injured. Star linebacker Kalen Allen broke his tibula against Greensboro Page last week. Free safety Jalen Weddington suffered a high ankle sprain two weeks ago in a playoff win over North Mecklenburg; and receiver Lovelle Williams Jr. - the Louisiana transfer who had starred in a showcase win over Scotland County to start the season - suffered a broken ankle against Hopewell Oct. 13.
All three players were essential to this Mavericks team. All three are lost for the year.
“You lose those three,” Palmieri said, “and now, you’ve really got 20 kids on the field who have not played any playoff downs. But we’ve got a really great group of kids, and a really great group of coaches. Next year, we’ll be a lot more veteran-ed up than we are now, but this has been pretty good to get here.”
▪ Mallard Creek will face an old friend in the state finals. Mallard Creek beat Wake Forest 59-21 for its first championship in 2013. It beat Wake Forest 25-14 in 2014 for its second.
Mallard Creek beat Greensboro Page 49-6 in the 2015 state final, before Wake Forest broke through and beat Page 29-0 in the 2016 finals.
I asked Palmieri if he felt Wake Forest would have any extra incentive not only to repeat but to get revenge on a Mavericks’ team that handled them pretty easy in the two earlier championship meetings. Wake Forest has won 30 straight games and beat Garner 51-21 in its eastern regional championship Friday.
“They’ve got a great football team,” he said. “They’re No. 1 in the state. They’re the state champs. We’ve got our hands full. But we know what we have to do. We don’t care who we play. We’ve played definitely the toughest schedule in the state and we’ll put our kids in positions to hopefully win the game.
“But I’m sure they’ll have a little bit of (incentive). They’ll be motivated to play in the state championship and playing us, I’m sure they’ll have a little more motivation, but our motivation is the same as theirs, to win a state championship and we’re looking forward to it.”
▪ Last week Mallard Creek won 9-5 over Page 9-5 last week, another team with a little extra incentive to bounce the Mavericks from the playoffs.
▪ Harding and Scotland County will meet in the state 4A final. It would’ve been a matchup of the nation’s top 2018 running back (Scotland’s Zamir White) and the nation’s top 2019 running back (Quavaris Crouch of Harding). But White is out for the season with a knee injury. When he plays again, it’ll be for the Georgia Bulldogs.
But Harding and Scotland County do have one thing in common: They both played Mallard Creek. Mallard Creek beat Scotland County at Scotland 28-21 to start the season. It beat Harding 30-9 in September, though Harding led in the third quarter before suffering several crushing turnovers.
▪ Lenoir Hibriten started the 2016 season with 14 straight wins only to lose 26-0 to eventual N.C. 3A state champion Belmont South Point in the regional semifinal. Friday, the Panthers were at home after winning 14 straight games. The opponent was four-time state champ Shelby, and even though Hibriten was at home, there was a definite feeling that it was the underdog.
Well, Hibriten won 19-7 and advanced to its first state final in school history -- next week’s 2AA championship against East Duplin. Panthers star McKinley Witherspoon had 155 yards rushing and two touchdowns. His second one, with 88 seconds left, sealed the biggest win in school history. That one will be talked about forever.
▪ Asheville Reynolds survived assaults from two of the best quarterbacks in the Observer’s coverage area on consecutive weeks to advance to the 3AA state championship game. In the quarterfinals last week, Reynolds stopped South Iredell and QB Brady Pope, who threw for more than 10,000 career yards. Friday, Reynolds beat Sun Valley 28-25 to advance to its first state championship since 2009.
Sun Valley junior QB Sam Howell, shaping up to be the best public school quarterback ever from Union County, rushed for three touchdowns and threw for one.
▪ Charlotte Catholic has won four state championships and qualified for its ninth state final Friday night, with a 33-15 win over Concord Robinson.
All four of the previous championship teams finished the year unbeaten, and I’ve always felt that the 2005 team was the best of them all. But this year’s Cougars’ team has been dominant and is relatively young. If this one wins, it replaces ’05 at the top of all-time Catholic teams.
This year’s team averages 40 points per game, fourth best in school history, and coach Mike Brodowicz has taken the successful run-first, hit-hard formula put together by legendary coach Jim Oddo and simply made it better.
Catholic, always hard to compete against, is even harder to deal with now. Brodowicz is 57-4 in four years and is heading to his third state championship game. He won the title in 2015. And next year, these relatively young Cougars -- like Palmieri’s relatively young Mavericks of Mallard Creek -- should be even better.
Harding gets dream game from QB and dream play from DB
Look, everyone is going to talk about the game that Harding junior running back Quavaris Crouch had in Friday’s 20-14 win over Vance. Crouch had 262 yards rushing in front of coaches from Clemson, Duke, Michigan and N.C. State.
But the Rams got big performances from senior quarterback Braheam Murphy and senior defensive back Marquise Nelson to advance to their first state championship game since 1987.
Murphy is the kid who was functionally homeless that Greiner moved into his home last year. He’s grown about 2 inches and added 20 pounds, and Greiner marveled at his game Friday. Murphy threw for 110 yards and a score. He ran for two touchdowns, including the game-winner from 28 yards in the fourth quarter. Murphy has committed to play college football at Army.
“How amazing is that,” Greiner said. “Braheam rose up to the occasion when we needed him. He took over the game, and that shows how big of a heart that kid has. The workhorse was Marquise, and that defense and Quavaris running, but at the prime moment, Brahaem made the magic happen. That’s what makes him gifted and why he’ll be great at West Point and why he’ll be a great leader in this country one day. He’s just an amazing kid. He’s done more for me in my life than I’ll ever do for him in his.”
Despite Murphy’s heroics, Vance reached the Harding 18 with eight seconds left, still with a shot to win. Greiner needed one more play from his team.
Nelson gave it to the Rams, using his 6-foot-2 frame to leap up and intercept a potential game-winning pass in the end zone.
Afterward, Greiner tried to sound surprised but, honestly, he didn’t, and he finally admitted that he felt all along that Harding could get to the finals. The reason there was not more elation is because Greiner doesn’t want to stop here.
The last time Harding was in the finals, 30 years ago, it lost 40-21 to Garner at Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium. What Greiner is chasing is a ring. Harding won back-to-back championships in 1952 and 1953.
Greiner wants to add a third title next Saturday.
“It’s not like I’m surprised,” Greiner said. “We were confident we could get here, but the feeling is we’re not done yet. I’m so happy for these guys, but we are not done yet.”
Friday’s #BIG5 Performers
Quavaris Crouch, Braheam Murphy, Harding: 262 yards on 29 carries for Crouch in a 20-14 win over Vance 20-14. Harding advanced to its first state final since 1987. Murphy threw for 102 yards and a score and ran 28 yards for the game-winner in the fourth quarter.
Malcolm Franklin, Mallard Creek: Two interceptions in the fourth quarter of Friday’s 20-10 win over Hough. He return one 77 yards.
Sam Howell, Sun Valley: Ran for three touchdowns, threw for one in a 28-25 loss to Asheville Reynolds in the 3AA semifinals.
Lamegea McDowell, Drew Morais, Charlotte Catholic: McDowell, a sophomore, rushed 20 times for 101 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-15 3A semifinal win over Concord Robinson. Morais hasn’t been forced to punt much this season, but kicked three times for a 35.3-yard average. One punt was downed at the Robinson 1 and led to a Catholic touchdown.
McKinley Witherspoon, Lenoir Hibriten: 155 yards rushing, two touchdowns in a 19-7 win over Shelby to send his school to its first state final.
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State Final Pairings
North Carolina (all games Saturday, Dec. 9)
4AA at Wake Forest
Mallard Creek (14-0) vs. Wake Forest (14-0)
4A at Wake Forest
Harding (13-1) vs. Scotland County (12-1)
3AA at Duke
Asheville Reynolds (14-1) vs. Wilmington New Hanover (14-1)
3A at Duke
Charlotte Catholic (15-0) vs. Havelock (14-1)
2AA at UNC
Lenoir Hibriten (15-0) vs. East Duplin (15-0)
2A at UNC
Reidsville (15-0) vs. Wallace Rose Hill (13-1)
1AA at NC State
Tarboro (14-0) vs. Mount Airy (14-0)
1A at NC State
North Duplin (14-0) vs. Cherokee (13-1)