Although it’s just his second year in town, Cleveland High head football coach Ron Crawford already knows just how tough playing in District 5-AAA is.
“To have three teams ranked in the first state poll and two this week is flattering for the district, but the fact is every one of these (5-AAA) teams is tough, and every Friday night is going to be a battle,” the 20-plus year veteran coach remarked. “We feel like our team is supercompetitive and you can’t afford to overlook anyone.”
The fact is after the first two weeks of the new pigskin season, the two teams — Walker Valley and Soddy-Daisy — that were picked by the 5-AAA coaches and local media to finish in the bottom two spots of this year’s district race are currently 2-0, which is the same record as newcomer and third-ranked (5A) East Hamilton. The Hurricanes have knocked off a pair of state-ranked squads — Signal Mountain and Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett.
The other four league teams are all 1-1, including Cleveland, which moved up from seventh to sixth in this week’s Class 5A poll. “Two of our teams gave Middle Tennessee powerhouses all they wanted. Bradley beat Riverdale and Ooltewah really pushed (ninth-ranked 6A) Siegel Friday night, which speaks to the strength of our district,” the Raider mentor added.
With tomorrow night marking the opening of this year’s 5-AAA race, Crawford will coach his first-ever game in Athens as his Blue Raiders take on two-time defending district champion McMinn County. Like they were this year, the Cherokees have been picked to finish fifth in each of the previous two preseason polls but have come through the 5-AAA race unscathed to claim back-to-back district titles.
“McMinn has been doing something right,” Crawford stated. “They haven’t lost a district game in two years. They have a rugged bunch of kids and have been able to find a way to win.”
Those victories include a 26-21 game at Benny Monroe Stadium last season and a 35-20 victory in Athens two years ago. Although Cleveland holds a 31-11 overall series advantage, dating back to the first year (1965) of Raider football, McMinn County holds a 9-7 edge since 1997. CHS dominated the first 25 meetings winning 23, including an 18-game winning streak from 1977-96.
“These teams around here have been playing each other for so long, there aren’t many secrets,” Crawford proclaimed. “We know what they are going to do and they know what we are going to do, so it’s just a matter of who executes better and holds onto the football.”
The Raiders and Cherokees have something in common this season in that both of their defeats have come to the same team — fifth-ranked (Division II) McCallie. The Blue Tornado outgunned Cleveland 55-35 in the season opener and then blew away McMinn County 41-6 last Friday.
“We know McCallie is a very good team, so we can’t get too wrapped up in the difference in the scores,” commented Crawford. “We’ve got to tune that out and not let that get us overconfident. They (McCallie) may have beaten McMinn pretty good, but they put 55 points on us, so we can’t afford to get wrapped up in all that.
“We also have to bury the Cookeville game (a 36-17 victory) and move onto McMinn,” the Raider wrangler declared. “The fact of the matter is McMinn is going to give us their best shot, and we better be ready.
“Last week we played a good first half, with the exception of a ‘Pick 6’ and losing a fumble, but we have got to learn to handle success better. We didn’t score any (offensive) points in the second half and we let some scoring opportunities get away,” he added.
After giving up 55 points the first week, Cleveland’s first-team defense only allowed Cookeville a field goal while building a 34-10 halftime advantage.
“Against McCallie things just sort of snowballed, but our defense played well in Cookeville and our kicking game was solid (including a 91-yard kickoff return by senior DJ Jones),” Crawford praised. “Our offense did well in the first half and allowed us to work on our running game some in the second half.”
Cleveland has put up 835 yards of offense and 71 points in two games so far this season. Senior quarterback Austin Herink completing 44-of-74 passes for 657 yards and a half dozen touchdowns, while Jones has found the end zone six times himself, pulling in 11 passes 210 yards and four TDs, plus he scored on the kick return and has a rushing touchdown.
McMinn County, which defeated rival McMinn Central 36-20 in its opener, is once again led by running back Dre Sanders, who led a 235-yard Tribe rushing attack last week with 81 yards on 22 carries.
“Sanders is an outstanding running back. He has a low center of gravity and really drives the ball hard,” Crawford assessed. “Their quarterback (Corbin Powers) is really improved and is more a part of their running game. They also throw a lot of screens (passes) that are basically part of their running game as well.
“Our biggest challenge this week is to put a premium on execution on both sides of the ball and our kicking game,” the coach related. “We’ve got to outexecute them with technique and responsibility. We’ve done a good job of reducing our penalties and maintained our poise. That will be important up there.
“This week will tell us a lot about our district,” Crawford concluded.
Ooltewah (1-1) goes to Soddy-Daisy (2-0), while East Hamilton and Walker Valley tangle at “The Corral” in a battle of unbeatens. Bradley Central (1-1) has a bye this week.