Mustangs’ perfection: Lots of talent, a bit of luck
by Cliff Mehrtens
DENVER – Most unbeaten teams at some point have to be lucky.
I’m in no way suggesting that talent, desire and teamwork aren’t the foundation of most teams that win ’em all. But too many things can go wrong in a football season that stretches from July to December – an injury to a key player, a wet field, an unfortunate bounce, etc.
Or, just one of those nights when you play great but the other team is better.
That didn’t happen to East Lincoln High’s football team, which went 16-0 to win the N.C. 2A championship Dec. 1. They bested every foe and benefited from some good fortune.
It happened when senior quarterback Garrett Young was hit near the goal line against rival Lincolnton on Sept. 28. He limped to the sideline. He knew the likely problem, because it’d happened before. Young’s kneecap was dislocated. He popped it back into place on the bench. Ouch. Crutches became his friend the rest of the game.
East Lincoln held on to beat Lincolnton 13-8, but Young’s future was uncertain. At the time, he was second in the state in passing yards and without a doubt was the most important offensive player on a 7-0 team.
Young delayed surgery on his knee, rehabbed like a demon, slapped on a brace and returned two weeks later against Lake Norman Charter. The Mustangs, with their gutsy catalyst intact, never looked back.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I got hurt,” Young said. “I just knew I had to get back as soon as possible. I wanted to be with my teammates. As long as I was able to move and get set in the pocket.”
I’ve seen high school teams with perfect records close up, including the granddaddy of them all – Independence High’s team that won 109 straight games from 2000-07. I walked the sidelines at a handful of East Lincoln games this season and saw a lot of similarities in their behavior.
The Mustangs played confidently, not arrogantly. They didn’t snipe at each other on the sideline. Neither did the coaches. Sure, things went wrong during games, but it was addressed with a quick word of instruction or encouragement, whether it was player-to-player or coach-to-player.
Cliché as it sounds, they didn’t care who got the credit. Young’s passing numbers were outstanding, but he unfailingly praised the offensive line, receivers and coaches.
East Lincoln played with the same intensity and focus much of the season, whether it was a mosquito-filled sweatbox in August or a where’s-my-gloves game in November. They wanted to score whether it was 40-0 or 0-0, not to embarrass an opponent, but because they strived for perfection. Ditto the Mustangs defense.
Coach Mike Byus built a talented staff and then delegated, realizing no one coach can handle everything during a game’s whirlwind. The assistant coaches – unsung heroes on almost every team – helped mold airtight units on defense, offense and special teams. When East Lincoln was forced to play without Young, the staff plugged in freshman Chaz Surratt at quarterback, rolled into West Lincoln and scored 40 points.
Like many perfect teams, East Lincoln was littered with good players surrounding its star. A Mustang or two may snag a college scholarship in the next few months, but recruiting lists don’t determine champions. There are plenty of five-star recruits who don’t have what East Lincoln players do – a perfect season.
Any coach can stand in front of his team in July and urge them to play together. It’s another thing to foster an environment to make it possible. Byus, the other coaches and the players did that, and they all benefited.
It’s a combination of a thousand little things said and done at practice, in film sessions, on bus rides, when players hung out together or other times you’ll never hear about.
The ultimate test for East Lincoln came in the title game. Tarboro was a three-time defending champ and led 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter. East Lincoln – with fans on both sides of Wake Forest’s stadium standing – calmly drove 80 yards for the winning touchdown.
The Mustangs defense stopped Tarboro’s ensuing drive with 90 seconds left, earning East Lincoln a title not many teams can claim.