While the ESPN crews won’t be gracing Benny Monroe Stadium this year, there are plenty of prime time story lines heading into Friday night’s game between the surging Walker Valley Mustangs and the Cleveland High Shool Blue Raiders.
A pair of new head coaches taking over programs that have recently fallen short of expectation, the perennial third-wheel team charging off to the hottest start in its history and possible postseason implications all abound as the Friday night lights spark to life this week in Bradley County.
For his part, Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford, isn’t dazzled by the brighter lights as he prepares for his first taste of an intracounty gridiron showdown.
“Our kids all showed up to watch film on Sunday without being required to. That was the red flag that alerted us to how important this game is to our kids. Our school is buzzing. We are excited about it. I was involved in these type rivalries in my previous job and am excited to see what it looks like here,” expressed Cleveland’s new head coach.
While the Raiders found success last week against Chattanooga Central, winning 35-13, the team is still struggling in a few areas including penalties against them.
In their previous three games, the Raiders have lost almost 300 yards on nearly 40 flags, and Crawford knows it could cost them in such an important matchup.
“How do we address the penalties? We continue to address the issues of moving our feet with our outside receivers, squaring up and making sure we don’t reach and grab a jersey. Our ‘O’ linemen, we continue to reiterate to get set and not reach and grab,” he stated.
“The procedure stuff is on us. We have to do a better job coaching that and reacting to that. I will say this in our defense: In this area there are more penalties [called] in a game than what I’m used to.”
Crawford went on to explain that the team is still in an adjusting period where both coaching staff and players are coming to understand each other, and while the process is still ongoing improvements have been seen.
“Our guys are really trying to do what we ask them to do. We still have to overcome some habits that are not easily broken. But, I probably don’t brag on our guys enough. They show up every day and go to work. I can’t ask anymore than that. We have to correct our mistakes, but they do a lot of positive things for us. I’m proud of our kids.”
While the team focus has still been about eliminating mistakes the Raiders can’t help but glance across the county at a Walker Valley Mustang squad who made history last week with their first 3-0 start in school history with a 33-22 win over former Cleveland head coach E.K. Slaughter’s Red Bank team.
“Walker Valley has a lot of momentum and a lot of heart coming into this game. I think Glen Ryan has energized the team. He has done a great job of getting his kids prepared to play. They play with some great energy and passion. They do a great job of utilizing their personnel to what their strengths are. We are impressed with what we’ve seen on film and understand we are in for quite a battle Friday night,” Crawford stated.
Friday night will provide both teams a chance at some validation this season. Cleveland will be the first same-classification opponent that Walker Valley has faced this season, and the Raiders are coming off wins against an Ooltewah Owls team that turned over the ball five time (and had three scores called back because of penalties), and a winless Purple Pounders squad.
For his part, Crawford said that Friday will provide a good measuring stick on how far the 2012 Raiders have come so far this season.
“We’ve gotten better defensively, but was that our defense getting better or our opponents? I think Friday night will answer that question. Offensively, we are still a little frustrated with our penalty situation, but we have pass protected really well and Austin (Herink) has distributed the ball really well. We need to clean up our route running a little bit, and really our expectations are that we need a few big plays.”
He’s looking to several playmakers on the team to step up and put a spark on the field. D.J. Jones is expected to get more touches on the offensive side of the ball. Junior wide receiver Tyler Davis has shown that he can make big plays when he gets in space.
Crawford described Eric Goodwin and Park Smith as “very consistent” for the team, and is looking for Reeves Morgan and C.J. Bryant to still break the big plays he knows that they are capable of.
All the questions will be answered Friday night as the week’s planning is put to the test. A Raider win would put Cleveland 2-0 in tumultuous District 5-AAA, and this will be the first game for the Mustangs in district play.
It all kicks off at Benny Monroe Stadium Friday night at 7:30 for what is expected to be a packed house for a much-anticipated football spectacle.