East Lincoln football, backed by town, off to NC title game

There was a moment Friday night where East Lincoln looked like it might wake up from its dream season, when a 14-0 fourth-quarter lead threatened to evaporate and the largest home crowd in the school’s history held its collective breath.

South Point had already scored once in the fourth period to make it 14-7, and with an inspired last-minute drive had reached East Lincoln’s 15 with 0:07 left on the clock. The P.A. man had made an announcement a few minutes earlier that all burgers and hot dogs were now half-price, but no one was buying anything at that moment. They were waiting and watching to see if East Lincoln could hold on and reach its first 3A football state final.

South Point’s quarterback rolled to his right, along with a couple of receivers and East Lincoln’s Ben Cutter — who plays linebacker, running back, tight end and punter for the Mustangs. Cutter’s best position is middle linebacker, though, and on this play he mirrored the rollout.

South Point’s quarterback heaved the ball toward a receiver and the end zone, but Cutter got there first. He picked it off, ran a few yards before getting tackled, and started celebrating as the clock rolled to 0:00 and the stadium went bananas.

“It’s amazing!” Cutter shouted a few minutes later as fans and family surrounded him. “This group of guys — we’ve been playing together since we were five years old. We love each other…. And now we’re going to the state championship.”

East Lincoln (15-0) plays in that 3A state championship at 7 p.m. Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, facing another 15-0 team in Northern Nash.

East Lincoln’s Ben Cutter, center, gets a congratulatory hug following the team’s 14-7 win over South Point in the NCHSAA 3A state semifinal game on Friday, December 2, 2022 at East Lincoln High School. Cutter, who plays both linebacker and running back, made a goal-line interception to seal the win on the game’s final play. JEFF SINER jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Usually there are several teams from the greater Charlotte area in the four football state championship games held by the N.C. High School Athletic Association. But this year, through some quirky circumstances, the only Observer-area team to advance to the finals was the Mustangs. The 1,061-student high school sits about 25 miles northwest of uptown Charlotte. I know its location well since my wife and a lot of her family members graduated from East Lincoln and we live just three miles away.

As it is in so many small towns across our country, an East Lincoln football game is a happening in Denver.

The high school football field at East Lincoln is familiar turf, owing in part to the fact that it also serves as a community park for the Fourth of July fireworks and music celebration every year. Everyone brings blankets, eats ice cream and looks skyward once they start hearing the booms. It’s a small slice of pure Americana in what we like to call “Denver of the East,” not to be confused with that slightly larger version of Denver in Colorado.

On N.C. 16 about 25 miles northwest of Charlotte, a sign has long greeted visitors promoting Denver “of the East.” Scott Fowler sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

On fall Friday nights, people pull on their orange and green sweatshirts and get to the stadium early to find a decent seat. The cheerleaders, band and dance team all perform their parts to perfection. Little kids play touch football games behind the bleachers, and the teenagers mostly head to the local Cook Out restaurant after the game.

Certainly, Denver has its own set of issues like every small town (we’re not an incorporated community, for one thing, which means our growth hasn’t been well-planned). But if you go to an East Lincoln football game on Friday night, you can forget them for a while.

This year the crowds have been larger because the team has been better than usual. The East Lincoln football games routinely draw 3,000-4000 people, even though Denver’s official population is only 2,697 according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Friday’s game drew a record 6,200 fans, with close to half of the supporters ringing the field and standing because there were no more seats in the bleachers.

The East Lincoln fans cheer on the team during second half action against South Point in the NCHSAA 3A state semifinal game on Friday, December 2, 2022 at East Lincoln High School. East Lincoln defeated South Point 14-7. JEFF SINER jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“I’ve never seen the hills next to the bleachers filled like they were that night,” said East Lincoln head coach David Lubowicz, who’s been teaching and coaching at the school for 16 years.

East Lincoln’s football program has reached the mountaintop before. In the early 2010s, brothers Chazz and Sage Surratt — who both became collegiate stars — dominated. Chazz Surratt was the older one and was a wide receiver for the first East Lincoln state championship team in 2012. By 2014, Chazz was the dazzling quarterback who would eventually become Parade magazine’s national player of the year. Sage was his favorite receiver, and that season the Mustangs swept to their second NCHSAA state title (in 2AA) in three years.

Mike Byus was the head coach of those teams, with Lubowicz his defensive coordinator.

“Those teams had a lot of star power,” said Lubowicz. “I think we had 5-6 kids off that 2014 team go out and play Division I college football, and a couple made it professionally.” The Surratts have both been on NFL squads, and Chazz Surratt is currently on the New York Jets and plays linebacker.

Chazz and Sage Surratt high school football
Chazz Surratt, left, and his brother, Sage, won an N.C. state championship for East Lincoln in 2014 with Chazz as quarterback and Sage as his top receiver. In college, Chazz Surratt would switch from quarterback to linebacker at UNC, while Sage Surratt played wide receiver at Wake Forest. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Continued Lubowicz: “This team is a little more balanced. Ben Cutter is going to West Virginia (on scholarship as a linebacker) and Keandre Walker is going to Virginia (on scholarship as a defensive back) But I think this is a more balanced team, as far as depth…. I think everybody outside of us is surprised we’re in this championship game. I’m not in the least bit, because this group is really talented.”

The Mustangs’ senior quarterback, Tyler Mizzell, has committed to Wake Forest as a preferred walk-on. He directs East Lincoln’s spread attack and has thrown 35 TD passes this season and only four interceptions.

“We like to throw it first to set up the run,” Lubowicz said. “When you have a weapon like Tyler Mizzell you want to be a throw-first team, because not only is he really athletic with a good arm, but he’s really smart.”

East Lincoln quarterback Tyler Mizzell, right, breaks to the outside on a run during second half action against South Point in the NCHSAA 3A state semifinal game on Friday, December 2, 2022 at East Lincoln High School. East Lincoln defeated South Point 14-7. JEFF SINER jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Like many of the East Lincoln seniors, Mizzell grew up in the area and watched the Surratt brothers star on the same field on which he’s now playing. “I went to games here since I was probably four years old,” Mizzell said. “I’ve always been a Mustang, and I’ve dreamed of a season like this.”

East Lincoln’s last several seasons have mostly consisted of winning years and early playoff exits.

“We have had a couple of average years recently, at least by East Lincoln standards,” said East Lincoln athletic director Chris Matile, who also is an assistant football coach and the school’s head baseball coach. “Some people were getting restless. We knew what was coming, though, and this senior class has been fantastic. They’ve delivered everything we thought they would.”

It’s not just seniors, though. Sophomore running back Chris Daley leads the team in rushing with 1671 yards and just picked up his first Division I scholarship offer, from Appalachian State.

“This is the first time we’ve been to the state championship in a long time,” Daley said, “but I’m not nervous about it. We’re pretty good.”

This is East Lincoln’s second year in the larger 3A classification, following the most recent NCHSAA realignment. A handful of players go both ways on offense and defense, but most play only one position. The defense has been particularly strong, as 13 of the Mustangs’ 15 opponents have scored eight points or fewer.

The East Lincoln Mustangs defense stops South Point full back Cam Medlock, center, on a run. In 13 of its 15 games, East Lincoln has allowed fewer than nine points. JEFF SINER jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Northern Nash will present a stiff challenge, though, as well as an offense that does a lot of the same things that East Lincoln does. Said Lubowicz: “They’ve got a mobile quarterback like we do. They’re a spread offense, like we are. Like us, they keep their kids calm and let their athletes run around.”

Keeping everyone calm in Denver will be a trick on Saturday, as seemingly half of Denver is making the three-hour hike to Raleigh for the state championship contest.

The East Lincoln seniors who fueled the team’s rise have one game left. And once again, they’ve got a lot of the community holding its breath, waiting to see what will happen next.

Sparkling cider flies through the air as East Lincoln celebrates their 14-7 win over South Point in the NCHSAA 3A state semifinal game on Friday, December 2, 2022 at East Lincoln High School. JEFF SINER jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has earned 18 national APSE writing awards and hosted The Observer’s podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.” His new podcast and online series is called “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” and features 1-on-1 interviews with NC and SC sports icons.
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