published Saturday, November 30th, 2013

Rebels rout Cleveland Blue Raiders in 5A state semifinal

Cleveland's Raekwon Bunion (8) is tackled by several West defenders.
Cleveland's Raekwon Bunion (8) is tackled by several West defenders.
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Managing a slight smile, Cleveland senior Parker Smith tried to wrap a bow around the 2013 Blue Raiders football season as best as he could Friday night.

"After the East Hamilton game, everything else we'd do was going to be like a cherry on the top," Smith said. "We weren't expected to come this far. In the second half, this is what it's been. We went through this pain together, and having some friends around was a pretty sentimental moment for me."

It was the only silver lining Friday night in a 49-14 Class 5A state semifinal loss to Knoxville West.

West jumped to a 35-0 halftime lead and rolled on into its first state championship game, two seasons after a defeat in the semifinals. Cleveland ended its most successful season in 18 years at 10-4.

Tailback Nathan Cottrell scored three touchdowns for the Rebels -- two rushing and another receiving. He had 106 yards rushing in the first half and sat out the second half.

"I think having the experience of being this close before helped us," Cottrell said. "It's been our goal this season to push on and get to the next level, and grow as a team. We're so close together. We have team unity, and it's been a great experience so far.

"It's an undescribable feeling to be this close to a state title now; it's been my dream since I've been young, and I know it's been the same for the rest of the team. We're finally where we want to be, but we still have one game to go."

His first score was set up by a 50-yard punt return by Jeff Bronner to the Cleveland 4 on the Rebels' second possession. Cottrell punched it in on the next play.

The Raiders' early nervousness led to mistakes. They fumbled four times on their first four possessions, and their following two drives ended on fourth down inside West territory -- and the Rebels turned both of those into touchdowns. Cottrell added a 76-yard run and a 15-yard reception from Seth Marshall when the Cleveland defense cheated up some in hopes of stopping the rushing attack.

West had 199 yards on 18 runs in the first half.

"West did a great job of playing with passion and energy, but we did some things to help them," Cleveland coach Ron Crawford said. "We never got in sync on either side of the ball. You have to credit the victory to West; they came prepared to play. We had the ball in scoring position early and couldn't cash it in, but what-ifs is not where we're at as a football team. We made the state semifinals and got beat by a good team. We'll learn from those mistakes and get better."

Another fumble led to a 67-yard return for a score by Bronner to start the second half. Cleveland was able to get on the board with two touchdown passes from Austin Herink to Tyler Davis -- covering 25 and 67 yards -- and West added a score by Desmond Thompson before the final buzzer.

Herink finished with 216 yards passing in his final game, with 139 of those yards included in eight catches by Davis.

Friday night ended what had been the most successful season since 1996, when Cleveland finished 11-1 but had its 54-game win streak halted in the state quarterfinals. This was the Raiders' deepest advancement in the playoffs since 1995 and their third consecutive Class 4A state championship.

"You have to give the seniors a lot of credit. They changed a lot of things in this program," Crawford said. "They were good people in the school building, the locker room and the football field, but that's the kind of people they are.

"They left it a lot better than they found it. That's for sure."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.

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