Despite having to overcome 16 penalties that cost them 130 yards, plus an unexpected aerial attack by Walker Valley, the Blue Raiders rode away with a 31-24 victory that came down to the wire.
“Those unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were garbage,” Slaughter proclaimed after the game. “Our kids did not do the things that they were saying that we did. Our kids played with class. Our kids played hard and those were unjust penalties.”
There were a total of 23 yellow flags tossed by the local officiating crew, including four for unsportsman-like conduct — three on Cleveland, one on Walker Valley.
Two of the Raider personal fouls resulted in extending Walker Valley drives (one on a fourth-down punting situation and the other moving the ball into the Red Zone on a scoring drive), while the third cost Cleveland a first down and helped stall their march at the Mustang 14.
The Raiders also had a block in the back penalty negate an 80-yard kickoff return, but they were able to mount their final scoring drive after starting on their own 21.
The Mustangs drew a total of seven penalties for 48 yards in the contest, one of which brought back a 30-yard gain.
The District 5-AAA victory was key for Cleveland, if they expect to return to the TSSAA playoffs for a sixth straight year.
Now 2-3 on the season, the Blue Raiders are 1-1 in district play, having split with the two other Class 5A teams in the league. Cleveland has missed the postseason just twice in the last 20 years.
Despite a second valiant effort in as many weeks, Walker Valley (0-4, 0-1) dropped its 10th straight contest and has won just three times since making the playoffs in 2008. A second-half Mustang rally came up just short in a 37-33 loss to seventh-ranked (4A) Red Bank on Sept. 9.
Both teams will step out of district play this week as the Blue Raiders renew an old rivalry at unbeaten Red Bank (4-0), while the Mustangs trot over to Benton to face Polk County (3-2).
Wanting to establish his team’s running game, Slaughter kept the ball on the ground for all but one yard of the 13-play opening possession. After nine straight running plays to open the game, the Blue Raiders had to settle of a field goal attempt, which was lengthened by a five-yard penalty. The 44-yard attempt was wide left.
After the teams exchanged a trio of three-and-out series, Cleveland got on the board first on the final play of the opening quarter.
Taking over on their own 20, Raider junior CJ Bryant broke through the line on the first play and was off to the races before Mustang speedster Kelvin Wells Jr. was able to run him down just shy of the end zone. After gaining the first 79 yards, plus an illegal formation flag moving the ball back to the 6, Bryant did the honors as time expired in the first frame.
Cleveland scored again on its next possession, after stripping the ball loose and pouncing on it at the Mustang 40. Once again staying primarily on the ground, the Blue Raiders used 11 plays to find paydirt with junior David Morgan plunging in from the 1.
Senior Anthony Vallejo booted the second of his four extra points on the evening for a 14-0 lead with 3:44 left in the opening half.
After sophomore Colton Morrow returned the ensuing kickoff 50 yards to the Raider 43, Walker Valley needed just two plays to cut the lead in half — a seven-yard run by Wells and a 31-yard scoring strike from junior Garrett Wallace to classmate Gabe Cartwright.
With two and a half minutes left in the frame, the Mustang defense gave their offense another chance, giving up just three yards in as many plays.
Taking over on its own 39, Walker Valley used a short run to set up back-to-back 30-yard tosses as Wallace hit Morrow on the sideline for the first one and drilled Cartwright across the middle for the TD. Senior Aidan Flock booted the second of his three PATs to tie the game with :48.7 showing on the clock.
Although both offenses drove into the other team’s territory to open the second half, no points came of the time-consuming marches.
Walker Valley made a great fourth-down stop just shy of the first down marker to take over possession on its own 14, but three plays later, Raider linebacker Trent Crouch picked off a pass that went through a Mustang receiver’s hands at the 15-yard line.
Cleveland needed just three plays to score with University of Pittsburgh commitment Chad Voytik scoring on a 1-yard quarterback sneak.
Not wanting to give the Mustang speedsters a chance at another big return, Cleveland’s Vallejo pooched the ensuing kickoff along the visiting sideline and the Raiders recovered the ball at the Mustang 30-yard line.
After Cleveland moved the ball to the 5, the Walker Valley defense stiffened and kept them there for the next three plays, forcing the visitors to settle for a 22-yard Vallejo field goal.
The next pooch kick went out of bounds, giving the hosts possession at their 47, which seven plays later resulted in a 29-yard Flock field goal with 8:42 left in the contest.
On the ensuing kickoff, Bryant broke free on a 75-yard return but once again there was laundry on the field, as a pair of flags came out. The ball was brought back to the 21, but the Raiders wasted no time in moving downfield as Voytik hit sophomore DJ Jones on a 41-yard toss. A trio of double-digit runs by Morgan (13, 11) and Bryant (12) moved the ball to the 1-yard line, from where freshman Ray Bunyon picked up his first varsity touchdown.
Vallejo tacked on the final Raider point of the night with 5:34 remaining.
After another out of bounds flag on the ensuing kickoff, Walker Valley started at its own 35 and overcame a pair of penalties with four double-digit gains of its own on its way to the end zone. Wells had runs of 13 and 12 yards, while Wallace hooked up with junior Bryson Locke on a key third down pass for a 20-yard gain.
Cartwright capped off a three-touchdown performance with a 14-yard dash and Flock tacked on the extra point with 140 seconds on the clock.
The Mustangs tried an unsuccessful onside kick and Cleveland was able to run out the clock to preserve the win.
“There was a lot of stuff going on tonight, that was difficult to overcome. Our guys were able to keep their composure,” declared Slaughter.
Cleveland ran the ball 51 times in the contest for 318 yards, with Bryant leading the way with 177 yards on 16 carries. Morgan tacked on 85 yards on 15 rushes, while Runyon carried the ball 11 times for 37 yards.
“We got the diesels cranked up and ran the ball,” the Cleveland coach assessed. “I was really proud of our guys. They (Walker Valley) loaded the box and we were still able to run on them. We had three backs that were running hard and doing a great job.”
Along with gaining 18 yards on eight carries, Voytik completed 7-of-14 passes for 116 yards, four of which Jones pulled in for 67 yards. “We were able to answer the call. We threw the ball when we needed to pick up some first downs,” Slaughter expressed.
Walker Valley managed 275 yards of offense with Wallace completing half of his dozen passes for 126, three of which went to Cartwright for 63 yards. Wells gained 96 yards on 16 carries to pace the ’Stang ground game.
“I was shocked by Walker Valley’s passing attack and so were our defensive backs. They did a good job,” Slaughter praised. “Everyone knows we’re geared to stop the run. Everyone knew it coming in. We came here knowing we had to stop 24 (Wells). They did what they needed to do and hit a couple big plays over the top of us and good for them. It wasn’t enough in the end.”
While pleased with his team’s effort and unwillingness to give up, Walker Valley coach Ted Lockerby bemoaned his team’s turnovers.
“We talked about a key element was going to be turnovers. We didn’t win the turnover ratio and they did,” he said. “The one in the first half and the two back-to-back (the interception and the pooch kick the Raiders recovered) in the second half all led to points. Those are mistakes we’ve got to learn from and get better.”
“We got a good effort from our kids but it is another tough loss,” he added. “We’ll line back up Monday and get ready for the next game.”
Cleveland 7 7 7 10— 31
Walker Valley 0 14 0 10 — 24
C — CJ Bryant 6 run (Anthony Vallejo kick), :00
C — David Morgan 1 run (Vallejo kick), 3:44
WV — Gabe Cartwright 32 pass from Garrett Wallace (Aidan Flock kick), 2:34
WV — Cartwright 30 pass from Wallace (Flock kick), :48
C — Chad Voytik 1 run (Vallejo kick), 3:15
C — Vallejo 22-yd field goal, 11:18
WV — Flock 29-yd. field goal, 8:42
C — Ray Bunyon 1 run (Vallejo kick), 5:34
WV — Cartwright 15 run (Flock kick), 2:20
First downs 17 10
Rushes-Yards 51-318 29-149
Passing 116 126
Total Yards 434 275
Comp-Att-Int 7-14-0 6-12-1
Punts-Avg. 2-44.0 3-36.3
Fumbles-Lost 3-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 16-130 7-48
Rushing: CJ Bryant 16-177 TD, David Morgan 15-85 TD, Ray Bunyon 11-37 TD, Chad Voytik 8-18 TD, Preston Goode 1-1 (C); Kelvins Wells Jr. 16-96, Gabe Cartwright 14-22 TD, Hunter Keefer 1-8,Garrett Wallace 1-5 (BC).
Passing: Chad Voytik 7-14-0 116 (C): Garrett Wallace 6-12-1 126 2 TD (WV).
Receiving: DJ Jones 4-67, Parker Smith 2-29, David Morgan 1-9 (C); Gabe Cartwright 3-63 2 TDs, Colton Morrow 1-29, Bryson Locke 1-19, Anthony Smith 1-15 (WV).
Records: Cleveland 2-3, 1-1 District 5-AAA; Walker Valley 0-4, 0-1 District 5-AAA.
McMinn County (6A) 2-0 3-2
Bradley Central (6A) 1-0 3-1
Ooltewah (5A) 1-1 3-2
Cleveland (5A) 1-1 2-3
Soddy-Daisy (6A) 1-1 1-3
Walker Valley (5A) 0-1 0-4
Rhea County (6A) 0-2 0-5
Friday, Sept. 16
Cleveland 31, Walker Valley 24
McMinn County 30, Ooltewah 26
Soddy-Daisy 40, Rhea County 10
Bradley Central had a bye
Polk County (3A) 2-0 3-2
Meigs County (3A) 1-1 3-2
McMinn Central (3A) 1-1 1-4
Sweetwater (3A) 0-1 3-2
Sequoyah (4A) 0-1 2-2
Friday, Sept. 16
Polk County 34, Sweetwater 14
McMinn Central 34, Meigs County 19
Sequoyah 35, Cumberland County 27