The Long Road Back: Cleveland football returns to the big stage - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

The Long Road Back: Cleveland football returns to the big stage

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CLEVELAND, Tenn. (WRCB) -- The reminders of everywhere.

The weight room. The stadium. Even at home for Cleveland junior running back T.J. Parker.

"All of the signs are up around school from 93, 94 and 95. You see all the pictures," he said. "But my dad played on that team, so I come home and I hear about it, too."

However, his stories have been rooted more in the present than the past in recent weeks.

The Blue Raiders' program is among the proudest in the state, boasting four state championships including three straight from 1993-95.

This week Parker and his teammates will play in the Class 5A state semifinals, the furthest Cleveland has been in the playoffs since its last title 18 years ago.

"It feels great that we're one step away from being where everyone talks about Cleveland football being," Parker said with a smile.

It hasn't been an easy climb back to the top, especially recently.

The Blue Raiders went 20-22 from 2009-2012 with just one playoff appearance in that span. Crawford was hired a year ago from Brentwood, where he won one state title, and led Cleveland to a 6-4 mark in his first year.

The Blue Raiders went 7-3 in the regular season this year and shared the District 5-AAA title with Ooltewah and East Hamilton, but their surprising run to the Final Four has been a road of redemption of sorts in the playoffs.

The Blue Raiders won at White County in round one before ousting top-seed Rhea County, the team that eliminated them from postseason contention last fall.

Last week Cleveland avenged a one-point regular season loss to East Hamilton with a 21-14 win.

Next up: Knoxville West, who beat Cleveland 35-25 in Week 4.

"It's been fun for me because the teams we played, we played Rhea county last year and I threw two interceptions," said senior quarterback Austin Herink. "We played East Hamilton earlier in the year and I didn't have a good game. Then Knox West, I'd love to get another shot at them."

Cleveland's first shot at the Rebels was well off the mark.

Bad traffic on the drive up caused the Blue Raiders to arrive late and rush their pre-game preps.

"We were really unfocused and played poorly in the first half," said head coach Ron Crawford. "It was 21-0 before the end of the first quarter."

Cleveland did its best to dig out of that early hole, but its early mistakes proved too much to overcome.

"We didn't tackle as well as we should and they had two or three big plays that went for touchdowns. We have to avoid those this time," said linebacker Kimsey Bell. "I'm excited to see them again."

So is Herink, who said the first matchup now seems like forever ago. 

"I think we're at least a three touchdown-better team than we were back then," said Herink, who like the rest of Cleveland's roster had never played a playoff game before this year. "We've just been getting better each week, and that's the goal at the beginning of the season."

Now nearing the end, the program's greatest goal is within reach.

After a few years of turmoil and several recent coaching changes, this year's team has a chance to hang a banner of its own and point the focus of the program into the future instead of the past.

"Everybody at the beginning of the season says, 'We're going to win state and this is going to be the year,' but it is surreal that we're that close," said Parker.

Added Herink: "I woke up Saturday morning and said, 'Golly, we're in the semifinals.' We've worked hard enough to be here, and we're here. I think it's just fun playing football with my friends a few more times."

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET. Channel 3 will have full coverage on Week 14 of Friday Night Football starting at 11:15 p.m. ET.

Click here for coverage of South Pittsburg's TSSAA state semifinal matchup with Coalfield.

Click here for coverage of Ringgold's GHSA state quarterfinal matchup with Central-Carroll.

Friday Night Football Week 14 Schedule

TSSAA State Playoffs - Semifinals

Class 1A
South Pittsburg (11-1) at Coalfield (9-3), 7pm

Class 5A
Cleveland (10-3) at Knoxville West (12-1), 7pm

GHSA State Playoffs - Quarterfinals

Class AAA
Central-Carroll (10-2) at Ringgold (10-2), 7:30pm

Class AA
Calhoun (11-1) at Benedictine (12-0), 7:30pm

Class A - Private Schools
Darlington (9-2) at Eagle's Landing Christian (10-0), 7:30pm

NCHSAA State Playoffs - Quarterfinals

Class 1A
Hayesville (6-7) at Murphy (10-3), 7:30pm

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