More than halfway through the football season the Cleveland Blue Raiders were floundering at 2-4 and coming off another thumping at the hands of Knoxville West.
To save their season the Blue Raiders won three of their final four regular-season games and qualified for the TSSAA Class 5A state football playoffs. Rewarded with its first postseason home game in 11 years, Cleveland responded with a 10-7 win over Clinton.
That victory set up this week’s huge second-round matchup with seventh-ranked and undefeated Oak Ridge (11-0) at Blankenship Field in Oak Ridge.
Game time is 7 p.m.
Limping along in late September, the Blue Raiders regrouped, never panicked and kept grinding as October rolled around.
“I don’t think we did anything out of the ordinary,” Cleveland coach Ron Crawford said. “We had a lot of injuries early on and we started to gradually get those players back. Our guys never flinched, for whatever reason and knew what they had to do.
“Our season became a series of one-game playoffs. We still had hope. We have 21 seniors and they stayed the course. They didn’t want the season to end badly.”
Cleveland (6-5) beat East Hamilton, Bradley Central and Walker Valley on successive Friday nights, but after an open week ran into trouble with a 30-14 loss to Ooltewah, which nailed down its second straight District 5-AAA regular-season championship.
“Over those last four weeks we played better defense,” Crawford said. “We weren’t having to outscore everybody. We played pretty good defense all along. Our offense was doing good things, but turnovers did us in.”
Including the final setback at Ooltewah, a game in which the Blue Raiders could have claimed their second straight league title with a victory over the Owls.
But now, Cleveland is still playing and several injured players have returned to action, although some Blue Raiders are playing new positions for the first time and others took the field for their first varsity action last week.
Left-handed Jake Gibson is playing quarterback because starter Austin Massey, a 1,249-yard passer with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, has a bum shoulder. Eric Goodwin moved from the outside to inside receiver, a spot he played in 2013. Robert Anderson is playing for the first time at outside linebacker. Gibson was playing OLB, but won’t go both ways in the postseason, so Rob Dennard has taken his spot.
At weakside linebacker, sophomore Tyrese Branch and junior T.J. Constant played their first varsity game against Clinton. Constant is a Cleveland-to-Bradley Central-back-to-Cleveland transfer who became eligible just before the Clinton game.
As for Massey’s playing status, Crawford simply said: “Hopeful.”
T.J. Parker is the Blue Raiders’ top rusher with 1,166 yards on 202 carries and four touchdowns.
Goodwin and Isaiah Beaty are the team’s top two receivers. The two have combined for 64 catches and 603 yards.
For the Blue Raiders, crushed 49-14 by West in the 2013 playoff semifinals, going to Oak Ridge and pulling out an upset win will be a huge challenge.
A storied football program with 617 all-time wins dating to 1943, Oak Ridge has outscored its 11 opponents 453-108 and count heavily on a pair of talented running backs, especially T.J. Allison, a 5-foot-8-inch, 180-pound junior who has gained approximately 800 yards this season.
Allison rushed for 175 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Soddy-Daisy.
And quarterback Logan Fadnek can throw effectively when Oak Ridge needs aerial yardage. Fadnek completed 10-of-14 passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s opening-round win.
Oak Ridge put up 457 yards of offense against Soddy-Daisy, which had 445 yards, 277 through the air on 22 completions.
The 28 points Soddy-Daisy scored last week is a season-high for the Wildcats’ defense.
“Soddy-Daisy’s quarterback (Hunter Maynor) was great,” Wildcats coach Joe Gaddis said. “They’re receivers were really good. They scored a lot of points all year, but also gave up a bunch of points. That’s how we are able to beat them. But their offense gave us some problems.”
What about Cleveland?
“Cleveland is real solid, real sound and a well-coached football team,” Gaddis said. “I’ve known Ron Crawford for years. Their defense is stronger than Soddy-Daisy’s. There’s no way we come anywhere nearing scoring 50 points on Cleveland.
Oak Ridge has been a dominant defensive team all season. The Wildcats, who have posted 12 seasons with at least 10 wins dating to 1991, held their opponents to 9.8 points per game, posted four shutouts and held two other teams to seven points.
“Our defense doesn’t have a lot of stars,” Gaddis said. “Linebacker Adam Manookian (junior, 5-11, 185) is our leading tackler, the secondary has played well and Alex Alcorn (junior, 6-4, 240) has played well at defensive end. The defense has just played well as a unit all year.”
The Wildcats have posted four shutouts and held two other teams to seven points.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Crawford.
“Oak Ridge is about what it looked like when they were rolling years ago,” Crawford said. “They’ve got a 6-foot-6, 260 pound defensive lineman with SEC offers and a sophomore wide receiver with SEC offers. They’re huge. Their smallest offensive lineman is 240 and we don’t have anybody on defense that weighs 240.”
But Crawford doesn’t discount the benefit of playing a tough schedule this season.
Seven of Cleveland’s 10 regular-season opponents reached the playoffs, including West High. The Rebels lost to Henry County, 28-27, in the 2013 championship game and their lone loss this season is a 31-16 decision to powerful Maryville in the second game.
“We played several good football teams,” Crawford said. “It’s a difficult schedule and I believe we can go to Oak Ridge and compete with them. Watching Soddy-Daisy’s game against them gives us hope.”
Crawford thinks his Blue Raiders can field a more miserly defense than the Trojans.
“We need to do that because we might not be able to score as many points against Oak Ridge as Soddy did,” he said. “I believe, and it may be because of lack of sleep or the long season, we’ve got a chance to win.
“They’ll have a huge crowd and we’ll have some close friends and relatives go with us. The last time I was up there was in 1997 when I was at Riverdale. I’m glad our kids get to go up there. It’s a great place to play football.”
Going into the second round there are still 15 undefeated teams still alive in the playoffs and three are in the quadrant two bracket: Oak Ridge, Rhea County and Ooltewah, all three big winners in last week.
When Crawford saw the brackets for the first time, he wasn’t concerned at all about the three 10-0 teams.
“That didn’t matter,” he said. “We were going to play our first home playoff game in 11 years. That was a big deal for our school community.”
Oak Ridge is the quadrant’s No. 1 seed and has home-field advantage through the semifinals. Rhea County is No. 2 and Ooltewah No. 3. Those teams are a combined 33-0.
There are five total teams with 11-0 records in Class 5AAA. No other classification, private or public, comes close to that, and only one (quadrant 3, Class 1A) has as many as two undefeated teams in the same quadrant.
“But we only have to play one of them this week,” Crawford said. “They’ll eliminate one of them over at Rhea County.”
TSSAA Second Round Pairings
All Games Start 7 p.m. Local Time
Ooltewah (11-0) at Rhea County (11-0)
Cleveland (6-5) at Oak Ridge (11-0)
Hixson (9-2) at Livingston Academy (10-1)
Signal Mountain (9-2) at Loudon (11-0)
Upperman (7-4) at Notre Dame (10-1)
Red Bank (7-4) at McMinn Central (9-2)
Jackson County (7-4) at Marion County (9-1)
South Pittsburg (6-5) at Copper Basin (6-4)
McCallie (9-2) at Montgomery Bell Academy (8-2)
Baylor (7-4) at Christian Brothers (6-4)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)
Left-handed quarterback Jake Gibson, a senior, has taken over the Cleveland offense from injured starter Austin Massey. Gibson directed the Blue Raiders to a tough 10-7 win over Clinton last week in the opening round of the Class 5A playoffs.
- Photo2 by Dennis Norwood