I was a senior at East Lincoln High School when the Mustangs won their first football state championship in 2012. I went to nearly all the home games during the regular season, but I don’t really remember much about them – because they were never close.
The team outscored their opponents 308-108, and most games were over by halftime.
On the morning of the state championship, I made the 70-mile journey to BB&T Field (now Truist Field) at Wake Forest University with six of my classmates.
The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric, with enthusiastic fans wearing orange and green cheering loudly and ringing cowbells as the Mustangs took the field – and the anticipation was palpable.
The opponent was Taboro, a school that had won the previous three state championships in the 2A class and produced former NFL running back Todd Gurley. But the Mustangs didn’t back down.
As the final seconds ticked away, then-coach Mike Byus embraced the team who was all smiles as chants of “E-L You Know” filled the stadium.
I was overcome with emotion as I watched my friends hoist the championship trophy in the air, and proud of all they had accomplished. It was a moment that many in Denver won’t forget, and one that united the entire community.
Support from the community
I met many of my best friends at East Lincoln, and had too many memorable experiences to name. But I had connections to the school before I stepped foot inside the halls.
My mother, Shirley, aunt, Tammy, and late uncle, Harold, graduated from East Lincoln, and my grandparents have lived about a quarter-mile away from David Clark Stadium on North Little Egypt Road for more than half a century.
Shortly after I finished college at UNC Charlotte, my career led me back to the west side of Lake Norman as a reporter for the Denver Citizen — and much to the dismay of my former teachers, they weren’t rid of me yet.
During my two-year stint at the Citizen, I interviewed a few of my former teachers, like David Lubowicz, East Lincoln’s current head football coach who lived just around the corner from me for a while; and Roberta Wilson, a former reporter for The Charlotte Observer who I had for English my senior year.
I also got to write about how the Denver community rallies around East Lincoln’s athletes.
Residents came out in droves to support the Mustang softball team all the way up until their 6-4 loss to West Stanly. A month later, there was standing room only at East Lincoln’s baseball field, where the Mustangs fell 6-4 to Forbush in the third round of the playoffs.
In Denver, support for high school athletic teams extends beyond just attending the games.
East Lincoln Sports Boosters, an organization made up of parents that raises money for all sports at the school, has provided more than $600,000 to the athletic program over the last 17 years, from sponsorships and donations from local businesses like Meineke, Hamilton Orthodontics and Joey’s Fine Food & Pizza.
With money from the booster club, East Lincoln was able to install a new scoreboard and improved seating at the football stadium, as well as a new scoreboard for the softball field.
On Saturday afternoon, hours before the state championship game, hundreds of Mustang supporters gathered in the school parking lot to wish the team well as their bus left for Raleigh.
Winning on the big stage
All eyes were on East Lincoln Saturday night, when the Mustangs capped an undefeated season by beating Northern Nash 30-15 for the school’s third state title.
I wasn’t at the game, but I watched a live stream on TV with some of my high school classmates who were on the team in 2012.
Thousands of students, parents, administrators and fans were in attendance, including some football players from North Lincoln High School, East Lincoln’s longtime rival. N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Northern Nash graduate, was also at the game and congratulated the Mustangs on their victory on Twitter.
The Mustangs were once again crowned as champions, and I experienced many of the same feelings I did 10 years ago: joy, excitement and pride. And I’ll always be proud to be a Mustang.