Last year, Cleveland’s season opener against McCallie wound up with the Raiders blown away by the equivalent of an EF3 Blue Tornado team.
Tonight at Finley Stadium, the Blue Raiders, who are about to kickoff their 50th football campaign, hope to even the score with the tough DII school.
Last August, Cleveland found itself locked in a battle of big plays, which head coach Ron Crawford is hoping to prevent this go-round.
“We’ve got to do our best to eliminate big plays, like long runs and passes over our heads. We had a lot of big plays on them and it was a game of big plays and back and forth,” Coach Crawford detailed.
“We’ve got to make them execute their option and go through all their reads. We’ve have to be disciplined enough defensively to stay in our coverage and not get something thrown over our head and give them easy scores. We’ve got to make them earn their scores, and can’t give up anything easy,” he added.
This year, the Raiders enter into the season opener as the sixth best team in Class 5A according to preseason polls.
The Blue Tornado head to Finley Stadium with sophomore QB Ja Vaughn Craig at the helm, who Coach Crawford feels had his best game of the season in McCallie’s 55-35 defeat of the Raiders last year.
Senior QB Austin Massey (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) will have the chance to put his physical and mental toughness to the test, as he leads Cleveland against a stacked McCallie team.
Coach Crawford expects Massey’s running and scrambling capabilities to bring a new look to the Raiders’ offense.
Cleveland faces a fierce test of team depth, as a number of veteran starters will be MIA, thanks to preseason injuries.
Depth was an issue Crawford was already concerned with before the injury bug bit.
“Our veteran kids have gotten injured and while you hate that for your team, you really hate it for those guys, because its their senior year,” Crawford stated. “We’ve had so many different moving parts due to injury that I think we’re concerned about if we’ve gotten enough repetitions for the guys who will be playing. I don’t know if we’re as sure of ourselves as we should be.”
The Raiders will look to returning senior Eric Goodwin (5-11, 187) to head up the team’s zapped receiving corps. Jay McIntire (5-9, 170) and Rod Dennard (6-4, 195) are also expected to help out, but are both two-way players.
“Obviously Eric is one back who’s got experience. Seniors Jay McIntire and Rod Dennard both play defense, so their energy level will be a factor. From there on it will be all guys who played JV last year,” Crawford explained.
Senior Jake Gibson (6-1, 205) has stepped up to become quite a versatile player for the Raiders and is currently the starting H receiver.
“Jake has converted — he’s kind of our ‘athlete du jour’ and is doing it all for us at this point,” Crawford said.
Outside of Gibson’s jack-of-all-trades status, Coach Crawford is still looking for the next guy who is going to step up his game.
The Blue Tornado boast a reputation for pure speed, which is another concern for the Cleveland coach.
“I don’t know how you prepare for speed, and that’s a ‘glaring strength’ of theirs. I would say that it’s very hard to simulate their speed and execution in practice,” Crawford commented. “I have tremendous respect for their quarterback, and they have some other skill kids who are good, too.”
Another dangerous aspect of the McCallie team is their athletic defense.
“Defensively, they are in a 3-3 stack — and we’ve worked against Baylor, so we’ve played it — but probably not against the type of players they’ve got. McCallie is long, athletic and can outnumber us in the box. I would venture to say that they are the most athletic team in this area,” Crawford remarked. “The question remains, how are our inexperienced players going to function in this kind of environment, against this kind of team?”
One area where Cleveland should match up better with McCallie on is in the kicking game.
“I think we’re more even in the kick game with them than we were last year,” Crawford declared. “The one difference is probably their explosiveness in their return game, where we don’t feel that ours is quite equal. We feel good about our punter and kickers and are pretty solid in those areas. We should be able to match them this time.”
Senior kicker Brandon Romero, who is also a standout player on the Blue Raider soccer team, will get the starting nod tonight, which will be his first official football game.
At the Jamboree this past weekend, Romero was able to clear a 37-yard field goal.
Kickoff for the first high school football game in the area will be at 7:30 p.m., with tickets costing $10 at the Finley Stadium gate.