“There were 22 games that impacted where we fell — We could’ve been seeded anywhere from two to six, so that’s pretty significant. We knew with our seventh victory that there was no way that anyone could mess up the brackets and keep us out,” Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford said. “We gave the team Monday and Friday off. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we just went back and went over all the fundamentals, since we didn’t know who our opponent would be. It was a good week, we had good weather and I think the kids practiced with purpose.”
Ready to get back to work, the fifth-seeded Raiders have turned their focus to the next task at hand, which is No. 4 seed White County.
The Warriors, who went 8-3 overall and 4-1 in District 6-AAA play, capped off their regular season play with a 13-0 win over rival Cookeville, a team they had not beaten since 1995.
“The Cookeville outcome probably surprised us. They hadn’t beaten Cookeville in 17 years,” Crawford stated. “Their kids will be excited and ready to play and we’re going to have to match their passion and intensity.”
The Raiders have not played the Warriors since 2008, and have a past record of 9-1 against their current playoff opponent.
According to Crawford, White County’s team is made up of big players who have quite a physical presence.
“They’re big, physical and run the football right at you. They would rather not throw it and it’s a play-action if they do. This is the most wins they’ve had since 1980 and their first ever chance to host a playoff game. I think White County is really excited; this is a big deal for them,” Crawford explained. “Blake Lynn is their best football player we think, he’s their tailback too. River Boruff is one of their better fullbacks and running backI think they have about seven kids who go both ways. For a more rural team, they have a surprisingly good punter (Hunter Cantrell) and kicker (Luke Cantrell). In 5A they have the best scoring defense in the state.”
Even though White County’s kicking game is bar none, Crawford is confident in his team’s skills and placekicker Oscar Galvan’s foot.
“I think Oscar has improved all year long. He’s been huge for us. He’s a guy that wants to get better and contribute. He’s given us the opportunity to score points,” Crawford stated.
Perhaps Cleveland’s greatest challenge Friday will be handling the Warrior’s “old timey” offense.
“I don’t know if we’ve faced anybody that has two- and three-back power runs. East Hamilton did it a little bit to us and we held up pretty well. Walker Valley was able to punch it at us a little bit and have a scoring drive. This is old fashioned, old timey two tight ends and three backs — it goes back to my high school days,” Crawford commented.
The coach, who has stressed the importance of fundamentals all season, knows that his team still has room for improvement. One area the team has vastly improved in has been effort and discipline.
“I don’t think that we executed really well offensively against Ooltewah. We played very hard and with a purpose and defensively executed pretty good. I think we really just gutted that last one out and willed ourselves to the victory. I’m proud of the effort we’ve played with and I’m proud of how discipline has helped us win games,” Crawford said. “We need to get off the field on third downs, defensively. Offensively, we need to not turn the ball over and we need to match their kicking game. We can’t match field position, but if we can execute offensively enough to make our kicks shorter, that will give us a chance.”
There is the possibility that the Raiders will be without a couple of solid players on Friday.
“I don’t know what to expect. Raekwon Bunion got hurt in our last game and Austin Massey got hurt in a household accident so we could be without two of our really good players,” Crawford remarked. “TJ Parker will be playing running back and will be backed up by Jonathan Terrero. Rod Dennard will play ‘Sam’ linebacker with no backup because our backup quit a few weeks ago.”
Parker leads the Raiders in rushing with a total of 823 yards in 131 carries, and is second overall in the area behind Polk County’s Zach Miller, who has racked up a total of 1,629 yards.
For White County, Lynn leads the team in rushing with a total of 1,191 yards on 199 carries and 12 touchdowns.
In 10 games senior QB Austin Herink has completed 179-of-275 attempted passes for a total of 2,491 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Herink has two of the top wide receivers in the area to throw to, with Tyler Davis and DJ Jones.
Davis is averaging 22.2 yards on each reception this season, with a total of 820 yards in 37 receptions and eight touchdowns.
Jones, who has an average of 15.1 yards on each reception, has 784 yards in 52 receptions and 14 touchdowns.
The Warriors, on the other hand, are not much of a passing team, as top wide receiver Tommy Odom has a total of 111 yards on 12 receptions and a single touchdown.
White County QB Jake Young went 0-for-2 on his attempted passes during the Cookeville game. He is 36-for-76 on the season, with a total of 349 yards and three touchdowns.
The game in Sparta is sure to bring a large crowd for the Warriors, with only a handful of Cleveland faithful making the trip.
“Their whole town will be out, while we will have no band and only close friends and family will be going up there with us. We have to rally the troops and play for ourselves. I’m excited to go play, and I think they are too,” Crawford stated. “I think it’s on our kids to push away all the distractions, and focus on the moment.”
While coach Crawford is no stranger to the TSSAA playoffs, the Raiders have not won a playoff game since 2002, which is something the second-year coach plans to change.
“This is a once-proud program that is on the mend, and we’re fixing to be relevant again,” Crawford commented.
“We expect to be playing next week.”