A 52-yard punt by East Hamilton’s Casey Malone pinned Cleveland down at its own 3 late in the fourth quarter.
“I turned around and said, ‘Well, it looks like we’ve got to go about 98 (yards) to score,’ ” Cleveland coach Ron Crawford said.
Crawford, the veteran coach who has put a spark in Cleveland’s program in two short years, turned out to be a prophet.
Senior quarterback Austin Herink engineered a 98-yard drive that chewed up precious minutes off the clock, T.J. Parker scored from the 4 with 1:27 left in the game and the Blue Raiders defeated East Hamilton, 21-14, on a warm, misty Friday night in the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Class 5A playoff quarterfinals.
Cleveland (10-3) advances to the semifinals and will play powerful Knoxville West (12-1) next Friday. West defeated Anderson County, 32-19, for the right to host the Blue Raiders, who have won six in a row since losing to the Hurricanes, 21-20, in early October.
A victory over West would give Cleveland a shot at its first title-game berth since 1995 when the Benny Monroe-coached Blue Raiders won the last of three successive state titles. That season also was the last time Cleveland reached the semifinals.
“We’re in the semifinals and we don’t get the (Seattle) Seahawks,” Crawford said, “so I think we can line up against anybody. We already played them once and we get an opportunity to redeem ourselves twice in one season. That’s pretty cool.”
East Hamilton finishes 10-3, losing in the quarterfinals for the second straight year.
“This is the toughest thing I’ve ever dealt with,” said East Hamilton quarterback Hunter Moore, who played with a torn meniscus in the left knee. “We all thought losing (to Giles County) last year was rough, but this is the toughest.”
Herink, who completed 14-of-18 passes for 175 yards, fired aerial strikes covering 36 and 49 yards to Brandon Williams and D.J. Jones, respectively, on the game-winning eight-play drive.
The completion to Jones moved the Blue Raiders to the Hurricanes’ 15 and Parker scored four plays later.
“That was clutch,” East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood said of Cleveland’s victory march. “Our kicking game has come up big in multiple games this year. We had to keep them pinned down, but you can bottle up a quality team for only so long.”
It was nothing out of the ordinary for Parker and his teammates.
“Nothing new,” Parker said. “We do it every day in practice. We get the ball at the 5 and drive it down and back every day. For us to do it in a game situation is just second nature.”
The game certainly appeared to be headed for overtime when Malone, who averaged 46.5 yards on two punts, boomed the 52-yarder that was downed at the 3.
“I knew we could score on that last drive,” Herink said. “We practice that all the time and that’s what I told the guys. I said, ‘Hey, we do this every day.’ ”
On first down, Parker hit the line for a 3-yard gain.
Then Herink connected with Brandon Williams for a 36-yarder, moving the Blue Raiders out to the 42.
Herink was sacked by Austin Gatewood for a 6-yard loss on the next play.
On second-and-16, Herink hooked up with Jones on a 49-yard bomb to the Hurricanes’ 15.
“On that first pass, it was a post to Tyler Davis, but he wasn’t open. It came down to a receiver (Williams) who’s just been starting for two games in his first year of football,” Herink said. “It was crazy.
“Then we had the post over there to D.J., but he didn’t run the right route and that was smart because I hit him down the sideline for the big play.”
Parker, who rushed for 121 yards on 21 carries, gained 3 and 6 yards on successive runs, taking the ball down to East Hamilton’s 6 where the Blue Raiders faced a third-and-one. Herink sneaked for the first down.
Parker zipped right up the middle and hit paydirt with 87 seconds remaining.
“This is amazing,” Parker said. “It’s one of the best feelings I’ve had in a long time. Last time we played those guys we lost 21-20 and it was heartbreaking. This time we pulled it out when it counted.”
East Hamilton, which had called its final timeout with 5:36 remaining, was in real trouble at its own 20 after the ensuing kickoff.
Moore launched a deep pass intended for Deshawn Thomas, who couldn’t make an over-the-shoulder grab while tightly defended. On second down, Moore, who was sacked nine times in last week’s 26-19 second-round win over Ooltewah, took a 4-yard loss.
Moore’s next two passes for Matt Milita and Gatewood fell incomplete and Cleveland ran out the clock for the victory.
Crawford, who guided Brentwood Academy to a state championship in 2002 in his first year at the school, was asked what the difference in Friday’s game.
“Wasn’t any difference,” he said. “Both teams had big plays. We knew big plays could kill and they just about did. They left a score on the field, there’s no doubt. Their kids battled. Our kids battled.”
One possession after Cooper Loftin missed a 34-yard field-goal try a week after hitting four against Ooltewah, the Hurricanes broke the scoreless tie.
Moore, sacked for a 2-yard loss on first down, then directed the Hurricanes on an 81-yard, 12-play drive culminated by his 1-yard sneak on fourth down. The touchdown came with 6:18 left in the second quarter.
The big play on the drive was Moore’s 39-yard pass to Thomas that gave the Hurricanes a first down on the Cleveland 15.
East Hamilton’s Jon Schussler recovered a Raekwon Bunion fumble at the Blue Raiders’ 30, but the Hurricanes went three-and-out.
The Blue Raiders, who now have beaten every team in District 5-AAA this season, then went 70 yards in six plays for a game-tying touchdown. Bunion scored from 2 yards out.
As time ticked away in the second quarter, the Hurricanes drove to the Cleveland 10 and faced a second-and-four. Moore ran for 3 yards. On third-and-one, Milita was nailed for a 6-yard loss. The Hurricanes couldn’t stop the clock. Quickly lining up on what was fourth down, Gatewood signaled for Moore to spike the ball, but Moore fumbled the snap from center as time ran out.
“The guys probably overcame some of the stuff I did by making plays,” Gatewood said. “I made some bad calls and that’s on me. We have to learn from that.”
East Hamilton got the second-half kickoff and set up shop at its own 23.
Milita gained 6 yards on two carries.
Moore hit Tony Francois on a short route on the left side and the Hurricanes’ leading receiver dashed 71 yards to put East Hamilton up 14-7.
Francois caught three passes for 101 yards and finished his senior season with 45 receptions for 1,387 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Cleveland had an answer for East Hamilton – an 80-yard scoring drive.
The Blue Raiders converted a third-and-eight when Herink hit Parker Smith for an 8-yard gainer early in the drive. Later, Herink made a great fake to Bunion and fired a 14-yard strike to Smith that set up Parker’s 17-yard touchdown run with 4:47 left in the third quarter.
Smith had three catches for 27 yards on the drive.
Moore, who threw for 2,957 yards and 22 touchdowns through 11 games, was limping noticeably in Wednesday’s practice session and appeared well below 100 percent against the Blue Raiders.
Still, he completed 13-of-25 passes for 269 yards with a touchdown pass and ran for another score in a gutty performance.
“I did all my treatments and I thought I was close to 100 percent,” he said. “My adrenaline got to flowing so I was all right.”
Moore wasn’t about to sit out his final home game, and as it turned out, his last high school game at East Hamilton – he has committed to Central Arkansas.
“I would have had to have something seriously wrong not to play,” he said.
Gatewood knew his star quarterback would play.
“He’s a warrior,” the coach said. “Most people would have taken a powder, but he won’t do that. He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever coached. He was about 55 to 60 percent, but he stood in there and laid it on the line.”
The Hurricanes needed Moore’s arm as Cleveland held them to an anemic 37 rushing yards. The Blue Raiders piled up 189 yard on the ground.
The Hurricanes had three drives stall at Cleveland’s 10, 14 and 3.
“We were inept in the red zone,” Gatewood said, “and that’s something we’ve had to overcome all year. When you’re struggling in the red zone and don’t hit big ones it can come back to haunt you.”
Cleveland 0 7 7 7 – 21
East Hamilton 0 7 7 0 – 14
EH – Hunter Moore 1 run (Cooper Loftin kick), 6:18
CL – Raekwon Bunion 2 run (Oscar Galvan kick), 2:22
EH – Tony Francois 71 pass from Moore (Loftin kick), 10:26
CL – T.J. Parker 17 run (Galvan kick), 4:47
CL – Parker 4 run (Galvan kick), 1:27
First Downs 18 11
Rushes-Yards 37-189 29-37
Passing Yards 175 269
Total Yards 55-364 54-306
Com.-Att.-Int. 14-18-0 13-25-0
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-0
Punts.-Avg. 3-11.0 2-46.5
Penalties-Yds. 0-0 1-5
RUSHING — Cleveland: T.J. Parker 21-121, Raekwon Bunion 9-55, Austin Herink 5-13, Team 2-0; East Hamilton: David Whiteside 3-17, Matt Milita 19-14, Tre Herndon 1-9, Hunter Moore 6-minus 3.
PASSING — Cleveland: Herink 14-18-0-175; East Hamilton: 13-25-0-269.
RECEIVING — Cleveland: Brandon Williams 3-54, Parker Smith 5-53, D.J. Jones 2-51, Parker 2-6; East Hamilton: Tony Francois 3-101, Milita 5-57, Austin Gatewood 3-55, Deshawn Thomas 1-40.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)