“Yes, in a sense, that pressure (of making the playoffs) is gone. We’ve done that. Now we have a chance to win a district championship and get a good seeding for the playoffs,” expressed the second-year Blue Raider mentor.
To claim a shot at the District 5-AAA title, Cleveland will have to do what no other league team has been able to do this season — knock off Ooltewah. It will be the fourth meeting this season that the Blue Raiders will go head-to-head with another state-ranked team.
Listed third in the latest Associated Press Class 5A poll, the Owls are 7-1 overall and 4-0 in 5-AAA play as they swoop into Benny Monroe Stadium Friday for Cleveland’s regular season finale.
Meanwhile, the seventh-ranked Blue Raiders sport a 6-3 overall mark and a 4-1 district record, having fallen to fourth-ranked East Hamilton (7-1, 4-1) 21-20 two weeks ago. The Hurricanes’ lone loss came to Ooltewah by a 28-26 tally back in Week 4.
“If we beat Ooltewah and East Ham(ilton) loses their last game to Bradley, then we’re the district champs,” explained coach Crawford. “If we win and they (EH) beat Bradley then we have a three-way tie. The tie-breaker first goes to overall record, which would give the title to East Ham(ilton), but then it goes to head-to-head, which would put us second if we beat them (Ooltewah).”
The district champ and runner-up get preferential seeding and home games in the opening round of the TSSAA postseason. The way the current playoff quadrants lineup, the Blue Raiders, Owls and Hurricanes would all be paired with Rhea County (7-1), Oak Ridge (6-2), Stone Memorial (6-2), White County (6-2) and possibly Lenoir City (4-4). The final brackets won’t be set until after the Nov. 1 games.
With Friday night’s 5-AAA championship battle expected to be a high-scoring affair thanks to a pair of explosive offenses that average more than 35 points per game each, the difference may come down to special teams and turnovers.
“Games like this are often determined by which team makes the fewest mistakes,” remarked coach Crawford. “Our defense has 19 takeaways this season, but we’ve also turned the ball over 19 times. We can’t afford to do that against a team like them (Ooltewah).”
The Raiders are coming off a 48-14 thrashing of county rival Walker Valley in which, for the first time this season, they had no turnovers. Ooltewah, which whipped the Mustangs 42-14 the week before, had last week off with a bye. The Owls have also been out of school this week as Hamilton County takes its fall break.
“They’ve (Ooltewah) had an extra week to prepare, plus they are getting their big running back (Desmond Pittman) back,” related coach Crawford.
After averaging more than eight yards a carry while gaining 956 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns in the first five games, Pittman has sat out the last two Owl victories after a leg injury during the first half of the Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett game on Sept. 27.
“He’s a bull (6-0, 235). If he’s in playing condition and he gets some confidence early, he’ll be hard to stop,” declared the Raider coach. “The little scatback they put in to replace him (Edward Hayes, 5-foot-10, 158) presents some problems of his own. He’s not a big guy like Pittman, but he’s elusive and has good speed.”
“(Brody) Binder is a very good quarterback who can make all of the throws and the (Mike) Williams kid at wide receiver has already committed to Tennessee Tech,” Crawford commented.
Binder (6-foot-2, 205) has completed 95-of-171 passes for 1,213 yards and has a 13-3 touchdowns-to-interception ratio. Williams (6-0, 175) has been his main target with 29 catches for 346 yards and five scores.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Owls have allowed just under 20 points a game with linebacker Jeremiah Jackson (6-0, 220) drawing the praise of several opposing coaches. “That sophomore middle linebacker is a specimen,’ proclaimed Crawford. “He’s going to be a big-time recruit,” Bradley Central coach Damon Floyd said of Jackson before the Bears played them.
Jackson tops the Owl defense with 83 total hits, 48 of which have been solo tackles, plus he has 10 tackles for loss. Senior defensive end David Strickland (5-foot-11, 228) leads the Ooltewah defense with 15 tackles for loss and is tied for the Southeast Tennessee lead with nine QB sacks.
Coming over from the University of Tennessee-Martin staff, first-year head coach Mac Bryan has kept the same offense Ooltewah has used the last few years, but he has taken the defense back to a four-man front.
“They are probably the most athletic group of kids in the district,” proclaimed coach Crawford. “They have extremely good athletes at all 11 positions.”
Cleveland will counter with some solid athletes of its own, having outscored opponents 238-85 in its half dozen victories so far this season.
The Raider offense has put a total of 318 points on the scoreboard with 3,884 yards of production. Senior QB Austin Herink leads the attack, having completed 160-of-249 passes for 2,248 yards and 23 touchdowns. The southpaw has also gained 187 yards on the ground, finding the end zone 10 times.
Herink is coming off a game where he completed 18-of-21 passes for 349 yards against Walker Valley and was in on seven touchdowns (six passing, one rushing) for the second time this season. He also threw for four scores and carried the ball in for three more in the win over McMinn County.
Senior receivers DJ Jones and Tyler Davis lead the area with 760 and 697 yards respectively. Jones has 13 touchdowns in his 48 receptions, plus has scored four times on 13 carries for 49 yards. Davis, who averages 21.8 yards per catch, has found paydirt seven times in the 32 passes he’s hauled in.
The Raiders has another pair of receivers who have gained more than 300 receiving yards — senior Parker Smith (34-353, 3 TDs) and junior Eric Goodwin (31-322, 2 TDs).
Cleveland can also run the ball with the double-headed attack of juniors TJ Parker and Raekwon Bunion. Parker is a dual threat with 739 yards on 111 carries (6.7 ypc), three for scores, plus he has pulled in 16 passes for another 210 yards. Bunion has gained 522 yards on 87 rushes (6.0 ypc).
Senior linebacker Jonathan Terrero leads the Raider defense with 94 total hits, including 65 solo tackles and five takeaways and a big block on an extra point attempt to preserve the win over Bradley.
Fellow linebacker Darius Pillow has been in on 80 hits, with seven tackles for loss, four sacks and a trio of takeaways. Both Terrero and Pillow had 10 solo tackles in their 14 and 13 total hits last week.
Senior Jackson Earle has been in on 55 hits and has a three takeaways, while classmate Kimsey Bell has made eight of his 45 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, plus has five sacks.
“It’s Senior Night and there’s no better way we can send these guys out than with a big win Friday night,” proclaimed Crawford. “These 17 seniors have been through a lot during their time here and they have been resilient. They have worked hard to get us where we’re at, and we’d like to give them a big sendoff.
Having drawn a Week 10 bye at the district meetings in the offseason, the Raiders will have to wait a week before finding out where and who they will play in the postseason. The TSSAA playoff brackets will be announced Nov. 2