Earlier in the week new Cleveland High coach Ron Crawford hit the nail on the head concerning his first game against arch-rival Bradley Central.
“In 30 years of coaching, I’ve never faced a four-year starting quarterback,” commented Crawford of Bear senior signal caller Bryce Copeland. “He’s a great competitor. He makes things go for them. We can’t afford to let him take over the game.”
“Take over” is exactly what Copeland did.
Accounting for 97.6 percent of Bradley’s offense, plus making several tackles, breaking up passes and recovering a key onside kick in the final 70 seconds as the Bears squeaked out a 16-14 victory. It was just the fourth time in 38 meetings that the “Crosstown Classic” has been decided by two points or less.
The win was the third in four years for Copeland and the rest of the Bradley seniors, who were honored before Friday’s final regular season game at Bear Stadium. The only other time in rivalry the Bears have had so much success was a stretch of five straight wins from 1973-78. Cleveland still leads the overall series by a 25-13 margin.
The victory sets up a showdown with Bradley’s longest rival McMinn County this Friday in Athens for the District 5-AAA championship. It will be the 89th meeting between the neighbors dating back to 1917. The Bears come in with a 6-3 overall record and a 4-1 mark in district play. The defending 5-AAA champion Cherokees are 8-1, and a perfect 5-0 in league action after scalping Soddy-Daisy 44-6 on Friday.
Cleveland (5-4, 3-2) will wrap up its regular season against Rhea County (1-8, 0-5) Friday at Benny Monroe Stadium. Coach Doug Greene’s Eagles are coming off a 35-21 loss to Walker Valley.
The Blue Raiders struck first Friday night forcing a three-and-out on the game’s opening possession. Taking advantage of a shanked 12-yard punt the visitors started their first drive on the Bear 42 yard line.
Senior tailback CJ Bryant scampered 16 yards on the first Cleveland snap and four plays later scooped up a bouncing fumble and scooted 21 yards to paydirt. Senior Jesse Jones split the uprights for the extra point and a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the contest.
Although the visitors marched inside the Bradley 30 four more times in the opening half they came away with no more points. The Blue Raiders wouldn’t score again until the final 92 seconds of the game.
“Our defense played great. Although they (Cleveland) were able to move the ball some, we just kept fighting and came up big when we needed to,” declared Bear head coach Damon Floyd, who is now 3-4 against the crosstown rivals.
After having to punt the ball away on their first three possessions, Bradley found the end zone on its fourth.
The Bears took over possession when defensive lineman Jackie Black tipped a Raider pass into the air and teammate DJ King came down with it at the Cleveland 44. After being backed up 10 yards by a holding penalty, Copeland hit junior Cal Pickel for a 26-yard gain, plus another 15-yards was tacked on for a personal foul by the Raiders.
Four plays later, Copeland hit senior Deshawn McCleary with a seven-yard TD pass, but once again a yellow flag called the play back and tacked on 10 more yards for holding.
Cleveland’s Dalten McDonald and Joe Morgan teamed up for the only sack of Copeland on the following play, but the southpaw gun slinger came right back to find junior Dee Crisp for a 24-yard scoring toss. Junior Clayton Steels’ extra point tied the game with 4:41 left in the opening half.
The Blue Raiders almost answered right back on the ensuing kickoff when Bryant took the pooch kick at the 35 and broke through the initial attack before senior kicker Mason McCann made a touchdown saving tackle at the Bear 45.
After Copeland broke up a pass on the first play, Bryant ran for a first down on the second. The Bears took that 10 yards back on the following play when junior Eduardo Trevino made the first of two sacks on Cleveland standout QB Austin Herink, who answered with a 19-yard screen pass to Bryant.
Faced with the Raiders needing just a yard for a first down to keep the drive alive, the Bear defense came up big twice in a row. Sophomore Warren Crisp stopped big David Morgan at the line of scrimmage on the first play before the interior part of the D line stonewalled a QB sneak on fourth down.
Taking over on their own 26, Copeland scampered for 15 yards on the first play, but then three straight incomplete passes set up another punting situation. However, for the third time this season, the ball was snapped over the punter’s head, giving Cleveland possession just 17 yards from the end zone with 1:48 on the clock.
Despite a roughing the passer penalty moving the ball to the 9 yard line, two yellow flags on Cleveland and a pair of pass completions that got stopped after just a one- and two-yard gains, forced the visitors to try a 31-yard field goal, which went wide left.
“That was huge,” proclaimed coach Floyd. “”Making the back-to-back stops on the one drive and then keeping them from scoring after giving them the ball on our 17, kept the game tied at the half.”
The Bradley defense came out strong in the second half as well, when Trevino stripped the ball loose on Cleveland’s first play from scrimmage and Warren Crisp pounced on it at the Raider 34.
Aided by one of Cleveland’s numerous facemask penalties, the Bears moved the ball to the 8, but the Raider D stiffened, so the hosts settled for a 24-yard Steels’ field goal for a three-point lead just over two minutes into the third quarter.
Sophomore Derrick Murray sacked Herink on the first play of the ensuing possession and after a couple of big plays from senior Robert Bartolameolli, Cleveland was forced to make their first punt of the night.
Taking over on their own 25, Copeland made the biggest play of the game, breaking through the line and out running the defenders for a 75-yard touchdown. A missed PAT left Bradley with a nine-point lead with more than 19 minutes to play.
The Bears had another opportunity to put points on the board late it in the game when they drove into the red zone, but when faced with a fourth-and-4 at the 12 yard line, chose to go for the first down instead of trying a 29-yard field goal.
Stoping the Bears just short of the first down, Cleveland took over on downs at its own 8 with 2:42 remaining. Herink connected with DJ Jones on back-to-back passes for 26 yards and then sophomore Eric Goodwin twice for 37 more. Bryant added a 20-yard dash to the drive and Herink and Jones connected for the final 14 for the score with 72 ticks on the clock.
Jesse Jones closed the gap to just two points with the PAT and then executed a good onside kick that went through the hands of a teammate before Copeland charged into the pileup and secured the ball for the Bears.
With the aid of a couple of timeouts, Cleveland was able to force a quick three-and-out but only had time for one play after the punt. Starting from his 18, Herink fired a bomb across midfield, but Bradley’s Austin Foss came down with the ball as time expired.
“We made too many mistakes with penalties and missed tackles tonight,” declared coach Crawford. “We had some opportunities but we didn’t take advantage of them.”
After gaining 119 yards in the opening half on 14 total touches, Bryant was held to just 27 after the break, 20 of which came on one run.
Herink completed 26-of-43 passes for 253 yards on the night, utilizing five different receivers — DJ Jones (11-90), Goodwin (4-60), Jackson Earle (5-42), Parker Smith (4-41) and Bryant (3-20).
For the Bears, Copeland had just 27 rushing yards in the first two quarters, but exploded for 137 on 17 second-half carries. He also completed 15-of-22 passes for 126 yards, all but two yards of which came in the first half.
All-totaled Copeland accounted for 290 of Bradley’s 297 offensvie yards, plus ran for one TD and tossed the other one.
“Bryce willed us to win,” commented coach Floyd. “We ran a lot of five-wide sets and they (Cleveland) played us a little deep, so he was able to take advantage of what they gave him. We wanted to run the clock as much as we could to keep their offense off the field.”
Pickel pulled in seven aerials for 80 yards, while Dee Crisp’s 24-yard scoring grab made him the only other Bear receiver with more than 10 yards.