Cleveland High’s “Revenge Road Tour” makes its third stop Friday night in Knoxville as the Blue Raiders need just one more “payback” victory to earn a spot in the TSSAA Class 5A State Championship game.
The Blue Raiders have already ended the season for sixth-ranked Rhea County, which did the same to them last year, plus sent eighth-ranked East Hamilton packing last week, after having fallen to the District 5-AAA newcomers in the regular season.
“This is another chance for us to redeem ourselves from an earlier loss,” proclaimed second-year Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford of tomorrow evening’s state playoff semifinal battle at Knox West High School. “The last time we went up there (Sept. 27) we got in a big hole early and even though we played a lot better in the second half, we couldn’t climb out of it.”
Just like their first meeting, the Raiders (10-3), ranked fifth in the final Associated Press poll, and second-ranked Rebels (12-1) are among the Top 4 Class 5A teams in the state, with the winner to advance to face either No. 1-ranked Henry County (13-0) or Clarksville Northeast (8-5) in the Dec. 6 state title game in Cookeville.
Back when they met in Week 5 of the season, both teams were 4-1 with West ranked third in the AP poll that week and Cleveland fourth. The Raiders ran into some difficulties due to a wreck on the interstate, arrived later than planned and had to rush through their pregame preparations.
“With everything that happened that day, we were just out of sync to begin the game,” Coach Crawford related. “We weren’t able to go through our normal routines and warm-ups. One thing we learned from that game is the importance of keeping our composure.”
The explosive Rebels put the Raiders on their heels right off the bat, scoring on their first offensive play with a 54-yard run by quarterback Seth Marshall 104 seconds into the contest. Ten ticks later the hosts found the end zone again on a 40-yard “Pick 6.” West went onto score twice more in the opening quarter while building a 35-12 advantage by intermission.
“This was the first game where we made adjustments at halftime and we were able to execute them when we came back out for the second half,” Crawford stated. Cleveland held the high-scoring Rebels scoreless for the final 28 minutes of the contest, while scoring twice themselves for a 35-25 final.
“There’s no doubt they can score (West has outscored its opponents 550-211 so far this season), so we have to limit their big plays, like we did last week against East Hamilton,” the Raider coach said in reference to last Friday’s 21-14 win over the Hurricanes, who had nipped them 21-20 during the regular season.
“They (West) are the most complete team, personnel wise that we’ve faced this season,” Crawford assessed. “They run the old split-back veer offense from the 1970s and ‘’80s. That gave us some trouble last time because we haven’t seen it in so long, but this time around we’ll be better prepared for it.”
“I don’t like having to play a team twice,” declared head coach Scott Cummings, who has led the Rebels to three of the last four state semifinals, but is yet to advance to the state title game. “It’s tough enough to beat a team once, but to try to do it twice in the same season is really tough. They (Cleveland) are a really good team and have gotten healthier since we played them last; we haven’t.”
West’s only loss this season came to top-ranked Class 6A powerhouse Maryville by a 42-20 score in their second game. The Rebels are riding an 11-game winning streak, including playoff victories over David Crockett (60-0), fourth-ranked Campbell County (50-18) and third-ranked Anderson County (32-19).
For Cleveland, which has won six straight and outscored its opponents 438-246 this season, Friday will be its ninth road game of the year as it tries to return to the state championship game for the first time since winning three-straight state crowns from 1993-95.
It is the Raiders’ eighth state semifinal appearance but first since 2002. They have won five of their previous Final 4 games, defeating Lexington (1970), Maryville (1982), Sullivan South (1993), Cherokee (1994) and Smyrna (1995), but falling twice to Maryville (1976 and 2002) and once to Tullahoma (1979).
For Crawford it is his seventh semifinal, having coached in four as TSSAA Hall of Fame coach Gary Rankin’s defensive coordinator at Riverdale, plus two while the head coach at Brentwood, including his Bruins winning the 2002 state championship.
“We played seven playoff teams during the regular season, plus the three since, so we are used to this level of competition,” Crawford expressed. “Last year, we felt we were capable of making a good run in the playoffs, but we didn’t make it in. With 15 starters returning this season we’ve felt like we could make this kind of run as long as we played like we know we’re capable of playing.”
“Ever since the second half of the Bradley game, we have been playing our best ball of the season,” he added. “We’ve cut down on our mistakes (penalties and turnovers) and we’ve continued to improve. Our defense is playing much better and our running game has really come along.”
With kickoff set for 7 p.m. in Knoxville, the Raiders intend to “Leave No Doubt” as they try to take the next step toward their ultimate goal — a state championship.