There was just one problem, no one told the 1-8 Rhea County they weren’t supposed to win.
The Golden Eagles came out onto Raider field and played the game of their season, upsetting Cleveland by a stunning final of 29-27, ending Cleveland’s season and their hopes of reaching the 2012 state playoffs.
Gutsy play from the visitors paid dividends all night as Rhea running backs fought hard for first downs that helped the offense eat huge chunks of yardage and clock.
Defensively, the Golden Eagles gained 13 early points, helped in large part by two of Cleveland’s four turnovers on the night.
Penalties were also once again an issue for the Blue Raiders as they picked up another four unsportsmanlike like conduct penalties, three of which occurred late in the second half while the team attempted to mount a comeback.
From the get-go it was apparent Rhea County had come to play. During the opening drive of game, the Golden Eagles marched from their own 27 to the opposite 19-yard line in 13 plays, catching many, Raider defense included, a little by surprise.
Luckily for home squad, Rhea came away empty when they missed 36-yard field goal attempt.
Having dodged a bullet, Cleveland’s ensuing drive got off to a promising start when Austin Herink found Reeves Morgan for a 20-yard gain right out of the gate.
But, on the next play of the drive the Raider offense put the ball on the ground, and Eagle defenders were quick to swarm to the ball and retake possession.
Rhea didn’t squander the opportunity. Five plays and 50 yards later Eagle running back Desmond Sharp found paydirt to give his team an shocking 6-0 lead.
Shocking was upgraded to alarming two plays later when Rhea’s David Loden picked off a Herink pass and scrambled to another Eagle touchdown.
To their credit, Cleveland strapped on the helmets and capped their ensuing drive with four straight first downs that put C.J. Bryant within five yards of the goal line. He didn’t disappoint, breaking through the defense to put the Raiders on the board 13-6 with 1:16 left to play in the first quarter.
Rhea was undeterred by the Cleveland score. The Eagles answered back with 19-play, 78-yard drive that saw three fourth down conversions on the way to their third touchdown of the first half. That put the score at 20-6, a tally that stood going into halftime.
There was an evident increase in competitive fire when the Raiders retook the field for the second half. It was a fire that reached inferno status when Reed Allison got the first second half highlight by picking off a Rhea pass.
The Raiders further fanned the flames when Herink found Morgan for a 40-yard pitch-and-catch that put Cleveland on the 1-yard line. Herink carried it himself on the next play, making it a 20-13 ball game.
Again Rhea answered with another lengthy drive, this one ending in a 40-yard field goal.
Morgan struck again for Cleveland when he brought the kickoff return back to the Golden Eagle 24 and injected some more life into the home sideline. David Morgan capped the drive with a 1-yard power run to bring the Raiders within three points.
And again the Eagles answered, this time through the air when quarterback Austin Dotson completed a 25-yard pass to Taylor Jenkins for another Rhea County score, putting the visitors up 29-20 with 8:29 left to play.
One Cleveland play later and Rhea took back over when Herink was picked off for the second time, giving the Eagles valuable downs to drain the clock.
While the Raider defense kept Rhea out of the end zone, plenty of damage had been done as precious seconds continued to tick off the clock.
Taking over on downs on their own 11-yard line Cleveland went to the air as Herink found five different Raider receivers, completing the drive with a 29-touchdown catch by D.J. Jones to put Cleveland within two points (29-27) with 1:40 left to play.
The imminent on-side kick was safely recovered by Rhea County, but the Raider defense kept the home team in the game when they forced a very quick three-and-out to give the offense the ball back with 29 seconds left on the clock.
Cleveland opened the drive with Herink going back to Jones for an 18-yard gain, putting the Raiders on their own 39-yard line.
In the end, the clock and Rhea’s defense proved just too much as the Raiders’ season came to an end with a stunning 29-27 District-5AAA loss to the Eagles, moving Cleveland to 5-5 on the year and out of playoff contention.
“We were fighting not to let last week’s defeat to Bradley beat us twice. But, I think you have to give Rhea a lot of credit. Their coaching staff and their kids came in here and battled. We just struggled to get them stopped,” expressed Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford after the game.
“We turned the ball over uncharacteristically and had some things pop up that we have to eliminate if we want to get this program where I think the community wants it.”
Unfortunately for the Raiders, that’s where this year’s football story ends. After waking up Friday morning to apparent news that they had made the TSSAA playoffs and would be traveling to Columbia to face the 8-2 Lions, news broke late Saturday night that the TSSAA had made a mistake in the playoff selection process and the final postseason bid would instead go to Sullivan South High School.
“I feel like we made a lot of improvement during the season. Obviously, we are all extremely disappointed with our finish. No one more than myself,” lamented Crawford.
“We need to be thoughtful in our actions and thoughtful in our comments. You hate this for our seniors. They hung in and battled. I appreciate the way everyone has accepted me and our staff, and we will be continuously working to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Rhea County 13 7 3 6 — 29
Cleveland 6 0 14 7 — 27
RC — Desmond Sharp 10-yd. run (kick failed), 4:31
RC — David Loden 40-yd. interception (Wyatt Maerki kick), 3:51
CHS — C.J. Bryant 5-yd. run (kick failed), 1:16
RC — Jacob Revis 2-yd. run (Maerki kick), 4:02
CHS — Austin Herink 1-yd. run (Jesse Jones kick); 6:34
RC — Maerki 40-yd. field goal; 3:24
CHS — David Morgan 1-yd. run (Jones kick); 0:21
RC — Taylor Jenkins 25-yd. pass form Austin Dotson (kick failed), 8:29
CHS — D.J. Jones 29-yd. pass from Herink (Jones kick), 1:40
Team stats RC CHS
First downs 17 15
Rushes-yards 46-179 16-60
Passing yards 170 307
Total yards 349 367
Comp-Att-Int 16-25-1 23-35-2
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 2-2
Penalties 6-59 6-70
Rushing: Morgan 2-11 TD, Bryant 11-56 TD, Herink 3-(-7) TD (CHS); Jeremy Moffett 16-93, Sharp 16-50 (Rhea).
Passing: Herink 23-35-2 307 TD (CHS); Dotson 16-25-1 170 TD (Rhea).
Receiving: Reeves Morgan 3-72, Jackson Earle 2-17, Morgan 2-36, Parker Smith 5-67, Jones 4-62, Tyler Davis 2-43, Bryant 3-10 (CHS); Jenkins 4-62 TD, Demitrius Patterson 6-44, Sharp 4-61 (Rhea).
Records: Rhea County 2-8, 1-5 District 5-AAA; Cleveland 5-5, 3-3 District 5-AAA.