CLEVELAND, Tenn. (WRCB) -- It won't be broadcast nationally by ESPNU, but this year's annual meeting between Cleveland and Bradley Central will mean a little bit more when the two arch rivals meet in the Friday Night Football Game of the Week.
Both teams enter Week 9 of the 2012 with just one loss in district play, meaning the winner will still have a shot at chasing down district-unbeaten McMinn County in 5-AAA. The Bears (5-3, 3-1 in 5-AAA) will visit the Cherokees in their regular season finale the following week.
"We control our own destiny, which is a positive at this point in the year, but we can't think about any of that stuff right now," said Bradley Central head coach Damon Floyd. "All we're thinking about is beating Cleveland."
Past the district race, playoff hopes and positioning also hang in the balance for the Bears in Class 6A and Cleveland (5-3, 3-1) in Class 5A. Each team still likely needs one more win to officially clinch a postseason berth, with two wins in the final two weeks likely clinching a home playoff game.
"It's Bradley-Cleveland week, so you don't need any motivation to play. But man, there's a lot riding on this game," said Bradley Central quarterback Bryce Copeland.
The two teams have split the last four meetings in the series, with Bradley Central claiming an 18-0 win a year ago on national television.
Cleveland has won five of their last six since opening new head coach Ron Crawford's first season with losses at powerhouse programs Alcoa and Knoxville Catholic.
"We definitely bought in to Coach Crawford's plan and just kept working hard," said senior running back C.J. Bryant about the Blue Raiders' run of success.
Quarterback Austin Herink has fueled an up-tempo offense that's averaging 34 points per contest, but Bryant has been one of the area's biggest breakout stars.
Bryant rushed for 137 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries in last week's 48-14 rout of Soddy-Daisy, and added a 95-yard kickoff return for a score to open the game. It was the third 100-yard game of the season for the senior, who has also proven to be a game-changing ballhawk on defense.
"To me, C.J. is a Mr. Football-type candidate," Crawford said. "He's got about ten rushing touchdowns while averaging eight yards a carry. He's caught about 20 balls for us, returned a kick for a score and returned a few fumbles and interceptions for scores on defense.
"He's done a lot of things for us and certainly got a lot of personality. He's just one of those kids that is a "can-do" kind of guy, which is what we needed this year."
Crawford called Bryant a "water bug" because of his ability to move in and out of trouble so quickly. At just 5-foot-9 and a generous 170 pounds, he plays much larger than his size on both sides of the ball.
"I just like to be on the field. I get a little agitated when they take me out of the game," Bryant said with a smile. "I just like being on the field with my teammates. Whether it's hitting people or scoring touchdowns, I like them both evenly."
Copeland is the marquee name on the opposite side.
The Bradley Central quarterback got the first big win of his career when he rallied the Bears past Cleveland in overtime as a freshman four years ago. Now a four-year starter, Copeland is looking for his third win over the rival Blue Raiders.
"They just kind of threw me out there four years ago and I just went with it. It was crazy," Copeland said of his second-ever start as a 15-year-old in 2009. "But if I could, hopefully, finish up 3-1 in my career against Cleveland, that means a lot to me."
He's the focal point in a run-first offense that also features talented tailback Logan Fetzner. The junior injured his ankle early in the season after a breakout debut against Polk County, but has worked his way back to full health. Fetzner rushed for 97 yards and a score in last week's 27-21 win over Walker Valley.
Dee Crisp has also emerged as a big-play threat at both wideout and defensive back, and an offensive line anchored by Tennessee verbal commitment Austin Sanders has shown an ability to take over games up front.
"We've just kept battling," Floyd said. "We've had a lot of injuries this year, but we haven't used it as an excuse. We've had lots of young kids step up and help us take care of business throughout the season. Now we just have to do it again Friday night."
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET at Bradley Central. Paul Shahen and Jordan Tippit will have live post-game coverage on Channel 3's award-winning Friday Night Football at 11:10 p.m. ET.
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