Wake Forest knew that if it made it back to the state final this year, there was a good chance Mallard Creek would be on the opposite sideline.
Now that the Cougars know they will again be facing the defending N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA champion Saturday, the team is less focused on taking on a dominant program from Charlotte and more focused on executing a solid game plan.
Wake Forest dug itself a hole early on in last year’s 59-21 state championship loss to the Mavericks as Mallard Creek took advantage of an interception, a botched snap on a punt attempt and prime field position to score the first 17 points of the game.
“I think as a coach and players that played last year, we understand the predicament that we put ourselves in, so we definitely don’t want to make early mistakes and we want to cut down on all of the mistakes,” Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas said Monday at the NCHSAA football championship press conference.
Mallard Creek (14-1) enters Saturday’s final averaging 48.8 points in the playoffs while holding opponents to 22.5 points.
“Watching them on film, they’re just solid,” Lucas said. “Their players are so talented it’s hard for one to stand out because across the board they’re so good. I feel like we have to play a great game in order to win, but that’s OK too. It’s a championship game and I feel like the players are going to have more confidence because of the way they played throughout the year.”
Wake Forest (15-0) held opponents to 13.7 points this year while scoring an average of 41.5. The Cougars won close contests in the third and fourth rounds of the playoffs, but held a powerful Garner team’s offense to less than a third of its average output in the East regional final to earn a spot in the championship game.
“I’m sure they’re well motivated,” Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieri said of Wake Forest. “No one likes to come to a state championship game and lose, and then you get an opportunity to play the team again. We have our work cut out for us. We know that they’re going to be ready to go, so we’ve got to match that intensity and execute, and all the things you need to do to win. They’re a good football team, and undefeated.”
Mallard Creek graduated 36 seniors from last year’s state championship team, including 22 defensive players. The Mavericks have not been as dominant this season as they were entering last year’s finals, but Palmieri said this year’s team has been battle-tested, having fought back to win after being down by 30 points to Hough midway through the season, and holding off a similar comeback attempt by Lake Norman and N.C. Gatorade Player of the Year quarterback Josh Ladowski last week.
This year’s team is not taking the large margin of last year’s final for granted, Palmieri said.
“We don’t worry about the score as far as how we prepare,” he said. We’re just trying to win the football game. Last year was last year and this is a totally different football team, they’re a totally different football team. So our kids and coaches, we’re prepared for a four-quarter game. ... We’re just trying to win the game by one point.”
Wake Forest has also put last year’s result behind them, Lucas said.
“I just think the group has more confidence,” he said. “It’s not a sense of ‘Wow, we’re playing for the championship.’ It’s more ‘We’re playing another game and we have an opportunity to win the state championship,’ so their focus is on playing the game.”