KNOXVILLE — Only one team in each classification finishes the season with a victory. Cleveland High’s chance to do that on the gridiron this year came to a close in a TSSAA state semifinal game Friday in Knoxville, but Coach Ron Crawford isn’t discouraged.
“I’m frustrated by the outcome of the game, but I’m not disappointed in the season or the kids,” proclaimed the second-year Blue Raider head coach after a 49-14 trip to the No. 2-ranked Knoxville West Rebels’ woodshed.
“This team has exceeded everybody’s expectations,” Crawford declared. “Our kids sacrificed and did what was best for the team, not themselves. They have helped us to renew winning and confidence in our program.”
Included with the 7-3 regular season record, Cleveland tied for the District 5-AAA regular season crown with a 5-1 league mark and then won three straight TSSAA playoff games to secure the program’s first 10-win season since 1996.
After impressive road playoff wins over White County, sixth-ranked Rhea County and eighth-ranked East Hamilton, the Blue Raiders, ranked fifth in the final Class 5A Associated Press poll, had to make the return trip to West, which had handed them one of their three regular season defeats.
“West has a great team and have made the semifinals three of the last four years, so they’ve been on this stage before,” Coach Crawford remarked. “They came in with more passion and experience. The things we’ve been able to do in the past, we weren’t able to do against them.”
The victory advances the 13-1 Rebels to the school’s first-ever TSSAA state championship game this Friday in Cookeville, where they will square off against top-ranked and unbeaten Henry County (14-0). The Patriots defeated Clarksville Northeast 43-14 and will be looking for their second state title in three years. They defeated Knox Powell 17-14 in the 2011 state championship game.
In a déjà vu flashback to the Sept. 27 game in Knoxville, West raced out to a quick lead once again Friday evening, putting up three touchdowns in the opening quarter to put the Cleveland in a deep hole. The Rebels had scored twice in the first two minutes of the first meeting.
The hosts added two more scores in the second frame for a 35-0 halftime advantage before both teams scored twice after the intermission.
Cleveland came out of the gate strong with tackles for loss by Austin Massey and TJ Parker in the Rebels game-opening possession, but then things went downhill as the hosts scored on their next five series.
After the Raider offense was also forced into a three-and out, West’s first score was set up by a 50-yard punt return to the Raider 5 yard line.
The Rebels needed just 32 yards to find pay dirt again less than three minutes later thanks to a Cleveland fumble.
Junior running back Nathan Cottrell, who had 156 yards of total offense, all in the opening half, accounted for the first two scores — a 5-yard plunge and a 16-yard reception.
After a drive from their own territory on their next effort, West went 66-yards on eight plays with senior fullback Justin Hodge bulling in from three yards out.
Cleveland looked like they had finally gotten on track in the ensuing possession, driving 65 yards on 11 plays, but three straight incomplete passes turned the ball back over to the Rebels, and Cottrell added insult to injury with a 77-yard dash to the end zone on the very next play.
Undaunted, the Raiders once again drove inside the West 30, but once again the host defense came up big to take over on downs.
Hodge capped off the first half scoring with a 15-yard jaunt with 71 ticks remaining on the clock.
Despite the running-clock situation, Cleveland came out determined after the intermission, once again driving into Rebel territory on the opening possession, but alas another fumble on the ninth play was scooped up by Max Bacon, who returned it 67 yards to pay dirt putting the home team up 42-0.
After being held to a three-and out, Cleveland took advantage of the lone Rebel turnover in the contest as Raider senior defensive tackle Tre’Var Moore pounced on a loose pigskin at midfield.
Going strictly to the air, Cleveland was able to cover the needed yardage in just three plays as senior signal caller Austin Herink connected with Brandon Williams for 10 yards, Parker Smith for 16 and Tyler Davis, who made a great leaping catch in the end zone for the final 25 in the opening play of the fourth frame.
After the Raider “D” forced a three-and-out, Herink and Davis hooked up again, this time for another spectacular 65-yard catch and run.
After an unsuccessful onside kick attempt, West, which averaged more than 42 points a game this season, was able to cap the scoring half-field drive of backup running back Desmond Thompson five straight times.
“We gave them too many short fields, plus they ‘22’d us to death.’ They have 22 starters, where we have guys who are not only playing both ways, but are on special teams as well,” Coach Crawford assessed.
“Their inside linebackers were stuffing our running game and when we had a chance to spread the field early, we didn’t make the catches,” the Raider coach remarked.
“You don’t want to go out this way, but we’ll be able to use it to build on,” he added. “West has been right there the last few years and this was our first time back at this level.”
“We are losing a great group of seniors that I’m very proud of, but we have a big class of juniors that we’re excited about for next year,” Crawford commented.
Cleveland actually out gained West 343-292 and posted 17 first downs to the Rebels’ nine.
Herink completed 18-of-33 passes for 236 yards, while Davis hauled in eight of those aerials for 139 yards and the two scores.
Junior running back Raekwon Bunion finished with 74 yards on a dozen carries an a reception.