Doing their Willie Nelson impression, head coach Ron Crawford’s fifth-ranked crew will be “on the road again” for the ninth time this season, taking their 10-3 record on a return trip to Knoxville West High School to battle the second-ranked Rebels (12-1) in a TSSAA Class 5A playoff semifinal contest.
Tonight’s winner advances to the state championship game Dec. 6 in Cookeville against either top-ranked Henry County (13-0) or playoff “Cinderella” Clarksville Northeast (8-5).
While the pigskin will be flying in K-town, the rounded leather will be bouncing at Jim Smiddy Arena for the 14th annual Mountain View Inn Thanksgiving Tournament for the next two days.
Hosting the girls’ only hoops tournament, Bradley Central (2-1) will take the hardwood this afternoon at 3:30 against unbeaten Knox Webb (5-0). Coach Jason Reuter’s Bearettes will play twice on Saturday with a noon game against Oak Ridge (1-3) and wrap up the event at 6:30 with a battle against Franklin County (2-1).
Hamilton Heights (3-3) and Oak Ridge will open the event at 2 this afternoon, while Franklin County will journey in to face Hamilton Heights in the nightcap at 6.
On Saturday morning, the action will tip off at 10:30 with Knox Webb and Franklin County, with both teams returning for games that evening as well. The Bradley and Franklin County junior varsity squads will also get some court time at 1:45 Saturday.
While the basketball girls will be lighting up the scoreboard here in town, the same is expected in Knoxville this evening at both Cleveland and Knox West feature high-scoring offenses that combined for 60 points in their last meeting — a 35-25 Rebel victory.
Averaging more than 42 points a game, West runs a “throwback” veer offense that features tailback Nathan Cottrell (5-foot-10, 174 pounds), who has averaged almost 14 yards a carry while piling up 1,652 yards and 18 TDs. Senior 200-pound fullback Justin Hodge has found the end zone 11 times while gaining 747 yards.
Running the show is quarterback Seth Marshall, who has run for 1,045 yards and 19 scores, including a 54-yard jaunt on the first play from scrimmage in the previous meeting with Cleveland. The 5-foot-9, 172-pound junior signal caller has also thrown for 739 yards and eight TDs.
Posting their first 10-win season since 1996, the Raider offense has put up just under 34 points an outing, with QB Austin Herink (6-2, 205) directing an attack that has gained 5,489 yards so far this season. The senior southpaw has connected on 216-of-325 passes for 3,079 yards and 30 TDs, plus has rushed for 260 yards and another dozen scores.
Spreading the ball around, Herink has five receivers with more than 200 receiving yards, including seniors Tyler Davis and DJ Jones leading the way with 1,036 and 915 respectively. Jones has found paydirt 21 times this season while Davis, who averages more than 24 yards per catch, has 11 scores. Classmate Parker Smith has 465 yards and a trio of TDs in 46 catches, while Eric Goodwin had 358 yards and two scores on 35 catches before a shoulder injury ended his season a couple of weeks ago.
The double-threat action of junior running backs TJ Parker and Raekwon Bunion has also aided the Raiders’ success, both on the ground and in the air. Parker (5-11, 165) has more than 1,400 yards of total offense with 1,203 of those and nine scores coming on 180 carries (6.7 ypc), plus another 216 yards on 18 receptions. Bunion (5-10, 181), who missed the last meeting with the Rebels, has collected 746 yards on 125 carries (6.0 ypc), plus hauled in seven aerials for 79 yards.
While both teams have quick-strike offensive capabilities, the difference in the game may come down to which defense can slow the other, and which teams makes the fewest mistakes. Both teams have defeated a pair of fellow state-ranked teams in the postseason, with Cleveland allowing just 29 points in three playoff games, while West gave up only 37.
“We can’t afford to make mistakes or turn the ball over, because West is the type of team that will make you pay for that in a hurry,” declared Coach Crawford, who is coaching in his seventh state semifinal game.
The Raiders are 5-2 in their previous Final Four football appearances, not having lost one since 1979. West has been to three of the last four semifinals, and lost its previous two attempts at punching a ticket for the state title game. Kickoff is at 7 this evening.