The Mount Zion High School football team wants you to keep underestimating it.
Tasked with the challenge of going on the road to face No. 1 Manchester in the Class A Public state quarterfinals last Friday, not many people gave the No. 8 Eagles any hope of taking down the juggernaut Blue Devils, who entered the contest unbeaten and the heavy favorite to capture the state crown.
One 10-6 stunning upset victory later and suddenly the state has taken note of what the Eagles are putting together as one of the final four teams left standing.
The underdog mentality is something MZ (10-2) has carried with it since before the regular season even started. And now it is carrying the team to heights never before seen in school history.
Just ask wide receiver Iaan "Mike-Mike" Cousin.
"That helps us play. All year we've had a chip on our shoulder with something to prove and now we're starting to prove it," Cousin said after practice on Monday. "More people are believers now. Nobody picked us to win that game (versus Manchester), even some people in our town. We came out and won and I think that everyone is a believer now."
Springing the upset of Manchester required a focused, disciplined effort on both sides of the football for the semifinal-bound Eagles. Defensively, MZ was tasked with the challenge of trying to slow down the running back duo of Deenizio Gamble and Kelvin Turner, both of whom combined for 2,413 rushing yards on 8.5 yards per carry heading into Friday.
The end result?
A meager 129 yards on 36 carries on top of three takeaways to boot.
Players like nose tackle C.J. Ledbetter embraced the challenge in the elite eight bout and tackled it head-on.
"They were basically saying, 'Come and get us,' and we just attacked," Ledbetter said. "We were the underdog the whole time and felt threatened, so we gave all we had."
There was an even bigger flair for the dramatic on the offensive side of the football for the Eagle underdogs. Down 6-3 on their own 7-yard line with 1:55 left, the Eagles quickly moved the ball downfield when quarterback C.J. Ackles hit Ray Cheeks for a 60-yard completion to bring them into Manchester territory. That's where the junior Cousin came in clutch with first a 28-yard reception to put them within striking distance and finally a touchdown grab with 23.9 seconds remaining to pull them ahead for the win.
This certainly wasn't the first time that "Mike-Mike" has come up big for his team in a tense moment this season. For him, it's just doing what he can to help his team.
"I try to delete everything from my mind and just know that if I can make this catch and put my team in a better position, I'm going to do everything in my power to get it," Cousin said. "I always tell my teammates that I may not always be there early on, but I'll be there if you need me and I've tried to live up to it."
Now the Eagles find themselves among state title contender company this week as they prep for a trip down south to No. 5 Clinch County for the state quarterfinals. Being part of both the first MZ ballclub to reach the semis and the first one to win 10 games in a single season, Ledbetter is well aware of actively being a part of history.
"It feels amazing. We've never been here before and we just hope to succeed," said Ledbetter. "Everybody was more hyped up and ready to play (on Monday) than just having regular old practice. We have to take everything serious this week and do everything right ."
And when facing a Panther ballclub that is just two years removed from a Class A state championship itself, MZ will once again pull out the tried and true underdog mantra to fuel it for the big-time challenge.
"Nobody really believes that we can pull this one out, so we want to shock the world," Ledbetter said.
Cousin added that everyone has rallied around each other and hungry to show the state what MZ is all about.
"We're going to play like a bunch of crazy dogs," Cousin said. "We're going to keep that same mentality this Friday."