East Hamilton got a second shot at Ooltewah in the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Class 5A football playoffs a week ago and escaped with a 26-19 second-round victory.
Cleveland’s Blue Raiders, who lost 21-20 to the Hurricanes on Oct. 4, have the same opportunity Friday night at East Hamilton High in a quarterfinal matchup with broad ramifications.
In other quarterfinal games involving Chattanooga area teams, Hixson is at home against Knoxville Catholic in Class 4A, Notre Dame will play Upperman at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville in Class 3A and Silverdale goes to Knoxville Grace and troubled Marion County plays at Trousdale County in Class A contests.
Kickoff for all playoff games is 7 p.m.local time and admission is $8, both set by TSSAA.
Hurricanes coach Ted Gatewood says he wasn’t thinking about revenge last week and Cleveland’s star quarterback Austin Herink is thinking way beyond talk of avenging the earlier one-point loss on Hurricane Hill.
“I wouldn’t say we’re playing out of revenge,” said Herink, the strong-armed, left-handed gunslinger, “it’s just that we’ve beat every team in the district except for East Hamilton. It would be a nice little stat to have at the end of the year.”
Said Gatewood, “We don’t feel comfortable coaching revenge. Our policy is this: how can we improve on what we did in the first game so we feel better about the second game? Everything else takes care of itself.”
Gatewood, who has taken the Hurricanes from a first-year punching bag to a program with back-to-back quarterfinal appearances, doesn’t close his players off from outside influences, especially in today’s technologically filled world of Twitter, Facebook and many other types of social media.
“I’m sure the kids probably have (revenge) in the back of their minds and they may talk about it,” he said, “but we, as coaches, don’t talk about that with them.”
Cleveland, which has won five straight games since the East Hamilton loss, and the Hurricanes go into Friday’s showdown with 9-3 and 10-2 records, respectively. The Hurricanes have won five of their last six with the only loss a 27-24 decision at Rhea County, the same team Cleveland drubbed, 31-7, a week ago.
Back in October, the teams scored all 41 points in the first half and set back and watched the defenses pitch second-half shutouts. In two playoff games, East Hamilton has given up 29 points and Cleveland 15.
Each team has offensive punch, though. The Blue Raiders average 34.7 points and the Hurricanes 30.8.
“Tony Francois can score,” said Cleveland’s Jonathan Terrero, a tenacious 5-foot-8-inch, 205-pound senior linebacker. “Tre Herndon can score when he gets in there and (Matt Milita) can score. They’ve got a lot of tools, but we want to make them earn everything. We don’t want them scoring on a big bust play like they did against Ooltewah.”
Moore threw a short screen to Milita on the left side and the senior running back turned it into a game-winning, 53-yard touchdown play with 16 seconds left.
Senior Hunter Moore, who has committed to Arkansas Central, was sacked nine times by the Owls and left James N. Monroe Stadium limping with a “bruised” knee. Gatewood said his quarterback will play Friday.
“He’s a tough kid, he plays hard and at this stage of the season everybody is dinged up,” Gatewood said.
Moore has thrown for 2,957 yards and 22 touchdowns and six different receivers have at least double-digit receptions, led by Francois’ 42 catches for 1,286 yards and 17 touchdowns.
A slight 5-6, 160-pound senior, Francois relies on terrific speed and crisp pass routes to do damage to opposing defenses.
“What’s amazing when you look at his stats,” Gatewood said, “is that he’s averaging 30 yards a catch and that’s phenomenal. I’d like to find a player anywhere in the state or two or three states with better numbers than that.
“He can flat-out fly, runs great routes and Hunter does a great job putting the ball out there for him to catch. They have a pretty good connection with each other and seem to link up at the right time.”
For example, Francois, who leads the Hurricanes in scoring with 102 points, caught four passes for 181 yards – Moore threw for 218 – and touchdowns covering 31, 63 and 80 yards in a 41-11 rout of Bradley Central during the regular season.
“I’ve had a great season and like what I’ve done so far,” Francois said. “I wanted at least 500 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns this season and I’ve met those goals. But there’s always room for improvement.”
Herink hasn’t been asleep at the wheel for the Blue Raiders, who have played in as many championship games – winning three of five – as seasons the Hurricanes have played football.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Herink, who hasn’t made his college choice yet although he has offers from UT-Martin and Eastern Kentucky, has passed for 2,905 yards and 30 touchdowns and can fire lasers to the top two receivers Bradley County – Tyler Davis and D.J. Jones.
Davis has 41 catches for 1,028 yards with 11 touchdowns while Jones comes in with 61 receptions for 864 yards and 16 scores.
The Blue Raiders also have to leading rushers in Bradley County in T.J. Parker (1,077) yards and Raekwon Bunion (694).
And the defense has been strong in the postseason as well. Terrero leads the Blue Raiders with 132 tackles – including 88 solo stops and a block of an extra point kick that sealed the Blue Raiders’ 21-20 win over rival Bradley Central. Darius Pillow has 121 tackles heading into the quarterfinals.
Cleveland may be playing its best football heading into Friday’s game.
“You’d like to think so,” veteran coach Ron Crawford said. “I know this we’ve played really consistent regardless of the competition. I think our tough schedule factors into that. We played a Division I team (Knox Webb), a one-seed that’s in the quarterfinals, Knox West, which is a two-seed, and Ooltewah was a two-seed, East Hamilton a three-seed and Rhea County a one-seed, all teams ranked above us.”
Ironically, the Cleveland-East Hamilton winner will play at the Alcoa-Knox West winner in the semifinals on Nov. 29.
A victory over East Hamilton would send the Blue Raiders into the semifinal round for the first time since 1995, when the Blue Raiders put the finishing touches on three successive championship seasons under coach Benny Monroe.
“All of our seniors want to leave this place better off than we found it,” Herink said. “I think we’ve done that, but going to the semifinals would raise the bar even higher. That would be a big deal for our program. Our class is just trying to get Cleveland back on the map. They had such a good streak in the 1990s and if we could do that it would mean everything to us.”
Herink recognizes the Blue Raiders’ offense can’t suffer another second-half shutdown against the Hurricanes, who held them to their lowest point total of the season.
While Herndon, a cornerback committed to Vanderbilt who has 33 tackles, two interceptions, five pass breakups and two blocked kicks, gets most of the spotlight the Hurricanes have plenty of other defensive stars.
Austin Gatewood, the coach’s son, leads the team with 72 tackles, 13 for loss, shares the sack lead with Jesse Barfield at six, and has three fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks. Barfield also is credited with 9.5 tackles for loss.
Zach Thomas had 47 tackles and 5.5 for loss.
Quinn Griffith and Griffin Reagan have combined for 77 tackles and Griffith has 5.5 for loss.
The player Herink needs to watch, however, is nose-for-the-ball defensive back and three-year starter Hunter Parker. He parks himself in pass routes and when the ball is in the air he’s hunting for a big hit or big play.
Parker is the team’s third-leading tackler with 52, four for loss, was in on one sack, and leads the Hurricanes with four interceptions and a team-best nine pass breakups.
“He’s got a gift for being where he’s supposed to be,” Ted Gatewood said.
Parker possesses the “it” factor.
“And you either have it or you don’t,” he said, as defensive coordinator Steve Garland walked by shouting, “He’s a ball-hawk. He’s a ball-hawk.”
Parker has seen up close the best that rugged District 5-AAA has to offer. He goes against Moore every day in practice and has matched wits with Herink, Bradley Central’s Brett Standifer and Ooltewah’s Brody Binder.
“My experience is huge,” the 5-10, 170-pound Parker said. “I’ve been there and done that before and played in big games before. That helps in the playoffs.”
Where does Parker rank Herink?
“He’s up there,” he said. “I love our guy (Moore), but Austin is up there with the others and has a strong arm and can make all the throws from sideline to sideline. I’m pretty good friends with the top four quarterbacks in our district and they all can sling it around. I like all of them except on Friday night. I’ll talk to them after the game.”
TSSAA Third-Round Playoff Schedule
All Games Start At 7 p.m. Local Time
Cleveland (9-3) at East Hamilton (10-2)
Knox Catholic (9-3) at Hixson (9-3)
Notre Dame (9-3) vs. Upperman (12-0) at Tennessee Tech
Silverdale Baptist (11-1) at Knox Grace (11-0)
Marion County (10-2) at Trousdale County (11-0)
Fayetteville (6-6) at South Pittsburg (10-1)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)