By JOE CANNON
Tonight’s “Crosstown Clash” dual meet means nothing as far as the district or region postseason seedings go, but ask any Blue Raider or Bear wrestler, coach or fan and they will tell you it …
Tonight’s “Crosstown Clash” dual meet means nothing as far as the district or region postseason seedings go, but ask any Blue Raider or Bear wrestler, coach or fan and they will tell you it means everything.
“This is a match about pride,” declared first-year Cleveland head coach Joey Knox, who has been a part of the last half dozen seasons as an assistant coach.
“This is always a big match, whether it's for the state championship (which it has been several times) or like Thursday, just a regular season meet,” related Ben Smith, who has been involved in well over 30 tilts as a Bear wrestler, assistant and head coach.
“This is a pure rivalry meet for the city/county championship bragging rites.”
The teams have evenly split the last six head-to-head meetings, with an average of a half dozen points separating the final scores.
Bradley avenged a pair of one-point losses to the Blue Raiders (in the Cleveland Duals title match and the regular season meet) with a 35-24 win to take last season’s TSSAA State Duals crown.
With Bradley County the reigning kings of Tennessee high school wrestling, it’s no surprise both squads come in at the top of the latest state polls.
With 10 of 14 wrestlers ranked in the individual weight classes, Cleveland has been atop both state polls all season.
Boasting a 23-1 record, with the lone loss coming to a nationally ranked Top 5 team, the Raiders haven’t been seriously challenged by anyone else until last week’s 43-24 come-from-behind victory over Soddy-Daisy.
Ranked third in the Pin-TN Class AAA poll and sixth in the coaches state poll that includes all public and private schools together, Bradley comes into the rivalry meet with a 14-5 overall record.
The Bear losses have come to a trio of teams — McCallie, Baylor, Science Hill — which are ranked above them in the state polls, plus a pair of powerhouse Georgia squads in the Mountain View (Ga.) Duals.
“Everybody knows we lost a lot (eight starters, including five state medalist, and four state champions, two of which combined to win seven TSSAA titles) from our teams that have won the past two (double) state championships, but we’ve got a lot of guys who are ready for their first shot at Cleveland,” Coach Smith related.
Coach Knox echoed the sentiment. “We have three freshmen who have never been in this (Cleveland-Bradley rivalry) environment, but they’ve wrestled all across the country and should be ready for this.”
A capacity crowd is expected for the Bear's Senior Night at Jim Smiddy Arena for the 7:15 p.m. varsity start. Junior varsity matches will begin at 5:30, with the honoring of seniors and their families planned for 6:45.
“It’s a great environment the whole community gets involved in — the wrestlers, the students, the fans,” declared Coach Smith.
Both coaches said last week’s Soddy-Daisy scare of Cleveland is beneficial.
“It was our only match since before Christmas and it served to let our guys know we have to bring our ‘A' game every night,” remarked Coach Knox.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better way to prepare for Bradley, because they are going to come in ready to bring their best. It’s always intense when we wrestle them.”
“We know we’re the underdog this year, but I feel like we match up well with Soddy, so to see them be able to do what they did last week is encouraging,” Coach Smith assessed.
“I wasn’t surprised by the score, but Soddy did wrestle out of their mind. Cleveland will be favored in 7-9 matches, but I feel like we can compete with them, especially on our mat, under our own light.”
While the teams have a combined dozen wrestlers ranked in this week’s Pin-TN individual rankings, barring some stepping up of weight classes, which has been known to happen, only one division will see two of them go head-to-head.
Bear sophomore Wesley DeVaney is ranked second at 113 pounds, while Raider freshman Jackson Bradford is No. 6.
“I expect that to be a good match,” commented Coach Knox. “Jackson is having a strong first season and is up for the challenge.”
Cleveland’s other ranked matmen include No. 2s Trey McDaniel (103), Bryce Pond (126) and Titus Swafford (285).
Raider Jack Hicks is listed third at 170, while Cody Matthews is No. 4 at 145.
Austin Sweeney (152) and Dylan Jones (170) are ranked fifth, while Jayce Mullins is No. 6 at 132.
“We’ll have a couple of starters out of the lineup, but we’ve got some good, tough guys ready to step in,” related Coach Knox.
Bradley’s other ranked wrestler is junior DJ Gibson, who is No. 2 at 195.
Unlike Cleveland, which has had just the lone meet against Soddy since the holiday break, Bradley has been very active to start the new year.
The Bears have recorded dual meet victories over Tullahoma, McMinn County and Ooltewah, plus garnered a second place finish at the 41-team Johnny Drennan Memorial Tournament last weekend in Nashville.
This could be the first of a possible three meetings between the Bears and Raiders this season, with the region duals just two weeks away and a possible rematch in the state finals, if everything falls into place.
Bradley still has to get past Soddy in a road meet next week (Jan. 18) to avoid a do-or-die situation in the region duals back at Smiddy Arena (Jan. 25).
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