League coaches say they know who is the team to beat in the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference. But don’t expect that team to go along with it.
Middle Creek enters this year with some impressive streaks.
The Mustangs have won at least a share of the past three conference championships. They’re on a 22-game win streak against SWAC teams (includes 3-0 in playoffs) and are 36-3 in league play over the last five years.
Middle Creek made the state semifinals last year, becoming the third SWAC team to do so in the past decade. But the razor-sharp focus of coach Mike Castellano and his group won’t have any of the hype.
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“We’re just worried about what we can do,” Castellano said.
The Mustangs’ spread offense, under co-coordinator Steve Burdeau and Jon Trump, has been in place for years.
Senior quarterback Brant Grisel was more than effective, earning second-team all-conference honors after throwing for 3,385 yards and completing 54.3 percent of his passes.
He had 35 touchdown passes and will look to cut down on 17 interceptions.
“Brant gets better every day,” Castellano said. “He’s a guy we think is a leader by example.”
Running backs Josh Drake, who led the team with 619 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman, will be brought back slowly from his season-ending leg injury a year ago.
Elijah Perry (421 yards, three TDs) and Stuart Fine (404 yards, four TDs) give the Mustangs great depth at the position.
The Mustangs’ top four receivers are gone, leaving Rasheem Eaton (238 yards, three TDs) as the top returner. Evan Yenulevich, Quadir Ford, John Spencer and Ashton Mitchell will be counted on as well.
In the trenches, Terry Patterson is the player to watch. Patterson was all-conference on offense and defense and has scholarship offers from teams that want him to play on either side of the ball.
“He’s a guy we place a lot of value in,” Castellano said.
On the offensive line, Patterson joins a deep unit that includes returning starters Bobby Marschewski and Connor Baroniunas.
There are several new players on defense, and Patterson will have plenty of help. Anthony Mitchell, Zayvon Powell, Jordan Clater, Cameron Tanjong and Jayshawn Brice will rotate in a unit that Castellano believes will be his team’s biggest strength.
The Mustangs run a 3-4 defense, and only Brendan Weinberg returns as one of the four starting linebackers.
Austin Ludwig, Matt Marino and Nick Honeycutt will fight for the other inside spot, and Alex Sutton, John Singleton, Luke Gray and Rakjuan Hutchins are battling for the outside spots.
Isaiah Herring has starting experience at safety but will have to beat out Tavon Holland, Grayson Smith and Ben Marino this year.
Yorick Sands has one of the starting corner spots locked down. Jonathon Spencer, Blake Moore, Theo McKinnon, Jaalen Williams and Ronald Falls are competing for the other one.
The Mustangs are set on special teams.
Michael Rubino, who has a scholarship offer from Appalachian State, was the league’s first-team kicker and punter and an easy choice for SWAC special teams player of the year.
“We take special teams seriously around here. We thought he was one of our MVPs,” Castellano said. “He’s kind of a catalyst.”
Middle Creek could be on the verge of a fourth straight conference title.
“We don’t really focus on that,” Castellano said. “We’re just trying to be the best we can be.”