As they approach the halfway point of their season, the Cleveland Blue Raiders have one goal in mind when they host District 5-AAA opponent Soddy-Daisy for homecoming Friday — to finish off the first half of the season with their fourth win.
“We all know that the second half of the season is a major district half. All we want to do is finish the first half 4-1,” Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford stated. “We’ve been together for a year. I think last year the team had no clue how to act; now we have a concept of what winning behavior and mental toughness look like. That’s been a big push of ours.”
On the other side of the coin, the now fifth-ranked Class 5A Raiders will soon be staring at a schedule that consists of a tough meeting with fourth-ranked Knoxville West and then four consecutive district games to finish the regular season.
“We’ve practiced better each and every week and I want to see that continue. The magnitude of the games each week as we go on is only going to increase. I think that being able to handle the good and the bad during that stretch run is going to be key for us,” Crawford said. “Staying on an even keel, remaining poised and being able to focus on the task at hand and not look ahead are all areas that we were incapable of last year. I think that we’ve done it up until this point, and I want to see that carry over into the second half.”
The key, according to the coach, is to not let the team get ahead of itself and lose focus on the task at hand.
“I think we learned a lesson last year as a staff and as a football team. We had started gathering data on potential first-round opponents early and looking at it and getting ahead of ourselves,” Crawford said. “I have not seen anything on Knox West, so we’re totally focused on Soddy-Daisy and that will finish out the first half of our season.”
Last week the Raiders overcame a slow start to finish off Lebanon-based Wilson Central, 33-13. According to Crawford, that win was made possible by his much-improved special teams.
“Right now our most significant improvement on our football team is our special teams. I mean all around, not just our kicker Oscar Galvan, punter Zack Lee and snapper Chapman Parks, but I think all the guys covering kicks and returning kicks have improved,” Crawford explained. “For example, in last Friday’s game we had a 60-yard punt, which totally flips the field, we kicked a field goal on the very next play and then pooch kicked it, a great kick — they fumble it and we get on it. In a game where we thought they had an advantage in special teams, special teams won us the game. That’s been our No. 1 area of improvement for our football team.”
Crawford has also seen weekly improvements in the team’s defense and offense, although he acknowledges that there are still things to work on.
“From week to week defensively, we’ve gotten better. If we can quit turning the ball over we can be dynamic offensively. We turned it over five times on Friday and still won against a good football team. We can’t keep doing that, no matter how dynamic they are,” Crawford commented. “I want to see us cut down on turnovers and we’ve got to help ourselves out and create some turnovers. We’re undersized on defense but we have been sliding around the ball.”
Although Soddy-Daisy’s recent history has been rather lackluster, the Trojans, who have gotten off to a 2-1 start under new coach Justin Barnes, are not a team to underestimate.
“We’ve seen a team come in here that is 1-8 and run up and down the field on us. If you learn from your past and if history teaches us any lesson, then we need to worry about us and our execution,” Crawford said. “I think you approach this team as this current team. They’ve got a new coach and new staff and you can tell by watching on film that they are well coached, have a plan and are playing hard. Of the three games that they’ve played, they have won the two that they should have. Soddy-Daisy has done a great job to get where they are right now.”
According to Crawford, the Trojans’ offense is familiar to the Raiders, but their defense is something quite different.
“Offensively they are similar to us, which probably makes it easier for us to practice this week. Defensively, they are different than anything we’ve seen at this point, if what we have seen on film is what they carry into Friday night,” Crawford stated. “Kicking game wise they are pretty solid and kick the ball deep. It’s really a team that is playing with some energy right now. We’ve got more veterans and speed, so it will be the team who shows up and plays the hardest.”
Juniors TJ Parker and Raekwon Bunion currently lead the Raiders in rushing with 33 runs for 200 yards and 50 runs for 267 yards respectively.
Senior DJ Jones has had 21 receptions for a total of 339 yards, while senior Tyler Davis has 11 receptions for 230 yards.
Senior QB Austin Herink has completed 76 of his 127 attempted passes for a total of 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns thus far in the season.
The evening will literally end with a bang, as Mount Olive Ministries and Larry Hill Ford put on a fireworks show for the crowd.