The Cleveland High School Blue Raiders gave everything they had Friday night as the defending District 5-AAA McMinn County Cherokees came to call at Benny Monroe Stadium.
Despite a number of successes on the field, a few Raider missteps late allowed McMinn to bring its full weight to bear as the one-two-punch of Dre Sanders and Kelvin Well Jr. cemented the victory with knockout punch performances.
McMinn’s dynamic duo rushed for 434 yards and four scores as the Cherokees came from behind to snatch away a nail-biter by the score of 26-21.
In the first drive of the game it was Cleveland’s defense that came up big, stopping a number of runs before they could break into the open field. Senior C.J. Bryant capped the stand with an interception, his first of two on the night.
Unfortunately for Raider Nation, Cleveland’s opening drive was unable to produce. A punt later the Cherokees took back over on their own 19.
That’s when those in attendance got a first-hand demonstration of district-leading squads potent attack. On the fourth play of the drive, Wells launched a lighting-quick jab up the field for a 72-yard gain. That set up Sanders to come across with a haymaking-uppercut two plays later, pushing the ball right up the gut and acrosss the line from two yards out.
After the first scoring drive broke through Cleveland defense got their guard up and held McMinn scoreless through the rest of the half. A punt, a fumble and a interception were all the Cherokees were able to muster for the remainder of the first half.
On the other hand, the Raider offense got things rolling behind a varied offensive attack of their own. Bryant and David Morgan got touches on the ground while Cleveland quarterback Austin Herink connected with Tyler Davis, Parker Smith. The drive culminated in a big time third down lob pass to the back corner of the endzone where D.J. Jones pulled it down for a home touchdown.
The score gave Cleveland the lead courtesy of a missed McMinn PAT earlier in the game. Raiders 7 - Cherokees 6.
Herink got it done through the air on the Raider’s final drive of the first half. The arial attack got started when he found Davis for a big 36-yard gain and an important third down conversation. That set up a blockbuster 15-yard TD run by Bryant.
Through one half of football Bryant tallied two interceptions, a fumble recovery, 72 yards and a touchdown to help lead the Raiders to a 14-6 lead going into the half.
Wells helped draw first blood again in the second half, when late in the third quarter he charged from his own 25 yard line to Cleveland’s 16. That set up another Sanders touchdown. However, the resulting two-point-conversion was stopped, leaving the Cherokees trailing 14-12.
In McMinn’s next drive Sanders returned the favor, setting up a Wells 15-yard scoring run that allowed the visitors to retake the lead with 9:06 left to play.
The Cherokees took the late rounds. For a third straight possession Wells and Sanders combined for 85 yards and McMinn’s fourth and final score, giving their team the 26-14 lead.
Cleveland refused to relent. With minutes left in the half, the Raiders scrapped together a drive that culminated in fourth down, 31-yard pitch-and-catch between Herink and Jones to pull the “Blue and White” within five with 57 seconds left on the clock.
But, the resulting onside kick was scooped up by the Cherokees who were then able to eat the remaining clock and walk off Raider field with a hard-fought victory.
“We made a few too many mistakes. We knew we had to be able to tackle those back in space, and we didn’t as well as we wanted to. It wasn’t a lack of effort out there. I thought our guys gave great effort,” expressed Raider head coach Ron Crawford after the game.
“We had a few breaks in the first half. Didn’t see any in the second half. We were battling and hanging in there. Both teams were tired. I’m proud of our effort and think we have improved as a football team.”
Friday night’s win puts McMinn back in the driver’s seat of the district. With Bradley and Cleveland both loosing, the Cherokees are the only unbeaten team with three district games left to go.
However, there is still hope as all three teams have a trifecta of vital conference games left in the regular season.
For its part, Cleveland will travel to Soddy-Daisy this Friday to take on an aling Trojan squad coming off a brow-beating loss to Walker Valley.