Even though Cleveland ultimately fell to the Rebels for a second time, the path to success was clearly mapped out for the 2014 team.
“I think when you go through and see the work ethic that it took the class before you to achieve whatever level of success they had, you have a good gauge of what needs to be done to get back there. Matching the confidence, perseverance and determination of last year’s team will be our challenge,” head coach Ron Crawford declared. “I would like to see us play with great effort each and every week, and develop to be the best that this team can be.”
Despite the loss of last year’s impressive senior class, the Raiders are once again poised to make another run deep into the playoffs, with a strong group of 2014 seniors leading the way.
Out of a total of 29 seniors, an estimated 17 to 19 are expected to be starters.
“This group is probably very similar to last year’s class in the fact that they are good kids, are fun to be around and have experienced a bit of success. They’re good guys in the locker room, which I think is more important. Several of them embody a great work ethic for our younger kids, which is the biggest thing. We’re going to try to milk this class for all their worth, that’s for sure,” Crawford commented. “Last year with maturity, we were able to win close games. We’re going to be involved in a lot of those close games again, and we have to have the components to handle those moments and come out on top. Even though we had a semifinal team, it’s still an education process for our whole system.”
Entering his third year heading up Cleveland’s football program, Coach Crawford once again finds himself concerned with the team’s depth and consistency.
“Depth is an issue for us. We’ve got a small class of juniors and sophomores. I’m proud of those guys for staying the course though. As far as I know, we’re the only program that goes year-round. Hopefully all of that will build up a sense of pride,” Crawford stated.
“We want to develop a level of consistency. How consistent are we going to be week in and week out? We have to develop what Cleveland High School is right now — we’ve gotten a lot of media due to our success last year and now we’re having to follow that up,” Crawford continued. “We have some confidence because we have a lot of veteran players. Now, what are our second-line players going to play like? Do we have the depth? Can we be solid on special teams? We still have some questions that need to be answered.”
Last fall, the Raiders ended their season 10-4 overall and 5-1 in District 5-AAA play. The 2013 season began with a 55-35 loss to McCallie and then a 35-25 loss to Knox West followed five weeks later. The very next week, East Hamilton handed Cleveland its only district loss in a heartbreaking 21-20 game.
“Last year we got off to a great start, then suffered defeats two weeks in a row. We were sitting 4-3 and then narrowly escaped the Bradley game, then went on a roll. Our challenge is finding out if we are going to be a program that is competitive every year,” Crawford stated.
The Raiders went on a six game winning streak that brought them back up to Knoxville on Nov. 29, where the Rebels once again bested them.
“Both games we shot ourselves in the foot and never gave ourselves a chance, particularly in the semifinal game. We got off to a terrible start and they took advantage. They obviously had a speed and depth advantage over us — they were a better football team than us, and beat us twice,” Crawford admitted.
Cleveland will once again run the gauntlet during their season of challenging opponents this year.
“The challenge for us in the system that exists now is surviving against schools with a larger population to get into the playoffs. Once we get in and are against schools of a similar size, we think we’ve got a chance,” Crawford explained. “We’re a 5A school with six 6A opponents, one DII opponent [private schools] and three 5A schools. The reality of it with this schedule is that every game counts — the playoffs start on Aug. 21.”
The Raiders will take on McCallie Thursday at Finley Stadium, and hope to see a different result this time around.
“It was a competitive game last year, but I would like to slow them down better and give ourselves a chance. I think their quarterback had his best game of the year against us last year. We can’t let him run the ball and create in the passing game as well this year,” Crawford explained. “I think our kids will be excited to play since it’s at Finley and it will be a cool environment for them to play in. It will be a huge challenge for us. It’s difficult to play your opener against a triple-option football team, but if you’re going to be the best, you have to play the best.”
The good times keep on rolling, as every game scheduled should prove a test of the team’s strength.
“We play a DII school and then Cookeville with 2,500 kids in the school and Jimmy Maynord, who according to Murphy Fair is one of the winningest coaches, so they will be much better. Then we’ve got McMinn, which is a traditional rival and does a great job with their kids each and every year. Then we’ve got Wilson Central, a 6A playoff team and Soddy-Daisy, which is a district game. Next comes Knox West, who is a 5A power, then East Hamilton, who we had two great battles with last year. Then Bradley, which in our two years has been two great games, with them winning one and then us pulling out the win last year.
“Then Walker Valley, who I would think that with all the youth they played last year will be much improved. Last is Ooltewah, who is a team that I think every coach in our league can agree on is the most talented, and I don’t think you’ll find anyone that disagrees with me. The good thing for our kids is that every Friday is important.”
The Raiders already have an uphill climb looming in front of them, as the injury bug has already seemingly taken a bite out of the squad.
During the preseason, Cleveland lost five of its starters to various injuries, some of which will keep a couple of players out of the action for close to six weeks.
Out of the five injured players, four are seniors expected to play pivotal on-field roles.
“We’ve had a run of bad luck. This gives the other kids the opportunity to see what they can do. It’s their turn to hold the rope,” Crawford declared. “In modern-day football, you have to play one play at a time. Every play has a life of its own. You can look bad for two quarters and all of a sudden start playing great and stop them.”
In his 30 years of coaching, Crawford claims to have had only had one freshman ever play on varsity. This year, he sees potential in four.
“We’ve got three and possibly a lineman who could be utilized. Romeo Wykle, Treasure Johnson, Keegan Jones and Kevin Martinez. Obviously we’re going to try not to use them, but I think it’s more commonplace in 5A ball than in 6A ball,” Crawford stated.
Jones is the younger brother of 2013 graduate DJ Jones, who led the Raiders in scoring last year with a total of 21 touchdowns and racked up 956 yards in 68 receptions.
While Coach Crawford is rightfully concerned about the depth of his team, he expects to see amplified effort out of the Raiders.
“I would hope that we’ve instilled a sense of playing with great effort. It would surprise me and disappoint me if we came out and didn’t play with that great effort. We have to handle our day-to-day-business with that same effort.”
Cleveland will be led on the field by senior Austin Massey, who is making the jump from linebacker to starting quarterback this year.
Even though Massey has had limited opportunities to play as the QB, Coach Crawford has faith in the 6-foot-3, 235 pounder.
“Where I would say that his predecessor had great mental toughness, Austin brings us a great physical toughness as well as mental toughness,” Crawford explained.
“I think we’ll look different. His skill set will be different than his predecessor’s. Hopefully we will use Austin Massey’s skills ... he is a big young man and throws the ball extremely well, but brings us a running element to our offense that we really haven’t had. We’re going to fit our offense to our quarterback this year.”
Massey completed six of his eight attempted passes last year for a total of 49 yards. On the other side of the ball, Massey racked up 33 solo tackles, 16 assisted and six tackles for loss.
The Raiders have two other players capable of playing in the quarterback slot as well, senior Jake Gibson and sophomore Dallas McCrary.
“Right now Jake Gibson has the best grasp of the offense, being that he’s a senior also. He is our starting H-receiver, so how many reps can we get him?” Crawford commented. “We’re pushing sophomore Dallas McCreary really hard to catch up. We would prefer him to be able to play JV games this year to get more reps because he was an eighth-grader here, then moved to Maryland and moved back and didn’t get any football here last year.”
The Raiders’ offense seems poised for big things, as a number of starting players are returning this year as well-seasoned seniors.
“We feel good with our running back situation and offensive line situation. They’re all veterans and there are three-year starters at several positions, so that obviously should be an area of strength. We have confidence in the guys replacing our receivers, but that’s still an unknown,” Crawford stated. “We have 2,000 yards worth of rushers returning, four offensive line returning, but we lost a lot of receivers, so I think with that and Austin being a big, physical kid it will look different because we will probably run the football more.”
Seniors TJ Parker and Raekwon Bunion were responsible for those 2,000 rushing yards last year, but with Bunion one of the four momentarily sidelined seniors, the lion’s share of work will fall on Parker.
If there’s anyone whose capable of handling the pressure it would be Parker, who is listed at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds.
In 2013, Parker amassed a total of 1,241 yards and nine touchdowns in 137 attempts in 2013.
Sophomore Raquan Dodd will lace up the cleats and work as a running back while Bunion is out of action.
With the loss of star receivers Tyler Davis and DJ Jones, the Raiders will be looking to some newer faces to fill in the holes.
“We lost two 1,000 yard receivers, basically. It will be by committee this year. We feel good about both sets of our receivers and there is probably another guy deep in there. The difference is that besides Eric (Goodwin), they haven’t played under the lights on Friday night,” Crawford commented.
Senior Isaiah Beaty was originally planned to be the X receiver, but due to injury, either sophomore Skylar Davis or Keegan Jones will fill the role.
The Y receiver will either be Gibson or senior Rod Dennard, with Goodwin having earned a spot as the Z receiver.
“Our inside receivers are much bigger and more physical,” Crawford detailed. “(We’re looking at) Rod Dennard, who is 6-4 and 195 pounds, and Jake Gibson who is 6-1 and 205 pounds, so it would be much bigger. We’ve taken Eric Goodwin, our returning inside receiver and moved him outside. I’m not sure what it will look like on deep balls, but we think that he can make all of the catches and all of the routes.”
Senior Jay McIntire and sophomore JaShawn Hill will see time as the H-back.
John Gaither (6-1, 265) returns as the center for his senior year, with fellow classmates Jonathan Cousineau (6-2, 276) and Koran Kennedy (6-1, 245) at left tackle and left guard respectively.
Senior Andrew Lowe (6-1, 227) will be the right guard, while senior John Smalley (5-10, 240) has earned the spot at right tackle.
A recurring theme, Cleveland’s defense will once again be on the smallish side.
“We will be small, just like last year’s team. All of our ends, from (Zack) Brammer at 190, to the biggest, (Chapman) Parks, (Zack) Willis and Dennard who are all at about 200 — Long and lean, and not very big. We will have to scrap and claw like last year.
The program is lacking lineman, and the coaches plan to rotate five or six guys around this season.
“As much as we were up and down last year on defense, when you look at us on film, we had great effort. I think that will be another unknown — we lost some guys over there that played relentlessly hard, regardless of the score,” Crawford said.
With the string of injuries that have plagued the Raiders early, the coaching staff has had to switch things up a bit schematically.
“Injury wise we’ve been kind of depleted and we’ve had to look at another front, a combination of 3-4 and 3-3,” Crawford explained. “We think that with the guys we have healthy, it will give us the best chance for success.”
Outside linebacker can be filled by either Dennard, Gibson, or seniors Jacob Morris (5-7, 165) and Michael Palmer (5-10, 175).
Parks (6-2, 205) and Brammer (6-0, 190), who are both seniors, will spend some time at defensive end along with juniors Willis (6-4, 200) and Alex Green (5-11, 183).
The nose guard slot was originally intended to be filled by John (Tre) Simpson, but an injury may have him out of the action for a bit. Lowe or sophomore Patrick Dale (5-11, 298) are expected to step into the role.
At inside linebacker will be Kennedy, who was moved to the position for this season, and junior Ben Wyrick (5-10, 200), with Parker and Hill at cornerback. Last year, Parker had 43 solo tackles and was in on 21 assisted.
McIntire and Goodwin are slated for safety duties.
The Raiders will have no worries when it comes to punting, as the highly touted Zach Lee is back for his senior year.
“Zach Lee, who is ranked high in the polls and national ratings, is a guy who works really hard at his craft and does a good job. He wants to contribute in a powerful way. We’re also looking at him in kickoffs and he’s been doing some work there,” Coach Crawford commented.
Parks has returned as the long snapper and Cleveland will have three kickers at their disposal.
Junior Oscar Galvan, who racked up 66 points off of five field goals and 51 extra points is slated to return, with senior soccer players Brandon Romero and Rosmel Gallo joining the team as kickers.
“Our football community has got to understand that we have to develop kickers and get them interested at an earlier age,” Crawford asserted.
Besides the addition of former Walker Valley head coach Ted Lockerby, the Cleveland coaching staff has no new faces.
Heath Weir is coaching the offensive line and Calron Washington is coaching the running backs.
David McMahan will be coaching outside receivers, with Leon Brown coaching the inside receivers.
Adam Renshaw will once again be quarterbacks coach.
Lockerby is the new defensive backs coach and Brad Benefield is coaching the defensive line.
Matt Ingram will be coaching the inside linebackers, Crawford is overseeing the outside linebackers, and Roger Parks is specialists coach.
Cleveland Blue Raiders
2014 Football Schedule
Date Opponent Time
Aug. 21 at McCallie** 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 29 Cookeville 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 5 McMinn County* 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 12 at Wilson Central 8 p.m.
Sept. 19 at Soddy-Daisy* 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 26 Knox West 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 3 East Hamilton* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 10 at Bradley Central* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 17 Walker Valley* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 at Ooltewah* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 31 Bye
*District 5-AAA opponent
**Best of the Preps at Finley Stadium
10-4 overall, 5-1 District 5-AAA
Date Opponent Results
Aug. 22 McCallie 35-55
Aug. 30 at Cookeville 36-17
Sept. 6 at McMinn County* 49-7
Sept. 13 Wilson Central 33-13
Sept. 20 Soddy-Daisy* 51-14
Sept. 27 at Knox West 25-35
Oct. 4 at East Hamilton* 20-21
Oct. 11 Bradley Central* 21-20
Oct. 18 at Walker Valley* 48-14
Oct. 25 Ooltewah* 26-21
TSSAA Class 5A Playoffs
Nov. 8 at White County** 42-8
Nov. 15 at Rhea County 31-7
Nov. 22 at East Hamilton 21-14
Nov. 29 at Knox West 14-49
*District 5-AAA opponent