Hargis: Cleveland’s knockout blow proved Maryville is not a machine

Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Cleveland High School football coach Marty Wheeler's team is off this week, but he's excited to see what last Friday's win against Maryville can do for the Blue Raiders when they return to competition. Cleveland beat Maryville 28-24, ending the Rebels' 144-game streak of region wins that was more than 20 years old.

There is a memorable scene in the movie "Rocky IV" where, after landing a series of blows that left a cut above Ivan Drago's eye, Rocky Balboa is met by his cornerman, Duke Evers, who excitedly informs the Italian Stallion what he's just proven about his seemingly invincible Russian opponent.

"You hurt him!" Evers yells as Rocky slumps onto the stool in his corner between rounds. "You see, he's not a machine! He's a man!"

For the past 22 years, Maryville High School's program has been as much of an unbeatable football machine as the state has seen, defeating 144 consecutive region opponents going into last Friday's game at Cleveland. But then the underdog Blue Raiders gained serious confidence after landing a few second-half offensive haymakers and, facing a three-point deficit late, drove 74 yards in 13 plays, with Drew Lambert hitting Lucas Szymborski on a 16-yard touchdown pass with 22 seconds left for a stunning 28-24 upset.

Until then, Maryville's most recent region loss was on Sept. 15, 2000, against Knoxville Halls. The Rebels recovered from the setback to win the TSSAA Class 4A title later that season, one of their 17 total state championships.

Even at last Friday's McCallie at Baylor game — which I was covering and where nothing else away from that rivalry typically registers with the folks filling the stadium — Cleveland's win was seismic. There was a noticeable buzz as people double-checked their phones to make sure the final score was accurate, and the aftershock was felt statewide.

"The thing about Maryville is, I'd say 95% of their games are won before it ever kicks off because the other team is usually sort of in awe of them just because who they are," Cleveland coach Marty Wheeler said earlier this week. "And to be honest, I did not see anything going into the game that said they weren't the typical physical Marvyille team. I felt like we had a chance to pass the ball on them, but we had three starters out, two on defense, so I was concerned if we could stop their run.

"But there was a moment that stood out, right as the second quarter started, where we turned the ball over but our kids didn't drop their heads or panic. In fact, their body language changed to where they seemed more determined to get a stop."

Wheeler even had his own Duke Evers moment as he briefly met with his team on the sideline after a Cleveland score, reminding the Blue Raiders to be aware of the fact they were matching Maryville blow for blow.

"I told our huddle, 'If you haven't figured it out by now, you should have — you can play with them,'" Wheeler recalled. "Our kids were nodding their heads in agreement, and some of them said, 'Yeah, we can beat them!' I liked the confidence. That was something we hadn't seen before."

The Blue Raiders began the fourth quarter holding a 21-14 lead, but Maryville closed the gap on a short field goal, then went ahead on Noah Vaughn's 5-yard run with 5:02 remaining before Cleveland answered with a gutsy drive for its first Region 2-6A win of the season. Lambert was 4-of-8 passing in the final possession and finished 15-of-24 for 200 yards and two touchdowns, while Mycah Jordan caught nine passes for 124 yards and a score for Cleveland (4-3, 1-2).

"In that final drive, we lined up to kick a game-tying field goal and felt great that we made it, but they ran into the kicker and gave us a first down," Wheeler said. "When that penalty was called, there was no hesitation from the sideline that we were going to take the points off the board and send the offense back out to try and end it right there.

"We didn't want to give them even a second on the clock to respond because those guys just know how to win. I never felt safe until the final second ticked off the clock. The biggest thing was our kids executed. That's been our biggest issue all year — a penalty here, a drop there — but that night we cashed in when we got chances, which was huge."

Before last Friday, Maryville also owned a 50-game winning streak over Chattanooga-area competition, beating 11 different schools by an average score of 42-12, with 25 of those victories in the playoffs. Only four Chattanooga-area teams had come within 20 points of the Rebels before Cleveland landed the knockout blow.

Oddly enough, the Blue Raiders had also been the most recent area team to have beaten the Rebels, doing so all the way back on Oct. 7, 1994. That thorough 42-6 thumping came at a time when Cleveland was on a 54-game winning streak that would include three straight state titles.

Similar to Rocky's right hook to Drago's face, Cleveland's upset may have also exposed Maryville's likelihood of a 22nd straight region title as being vulnerable, too. That's still to be decided, but last week's result did at least open the door for several other teams, because Region 2-6A is now as muddled as any across the state.

Bearden, Bradley Central, Farragut and Maryville are tied atop the region with 2-1 league records, while Cleveland is one game back of that foursome. Bradley Central still has home matchups with Farragut and Maryville left on its schedule, so the potential to win the region is in the Bears' hands.

Meanwhile, after a well-deserved bye week to soak in all the attention and praise, Cleveland has a home game against Bearden next week followed by a road trip to winless Hardin Valley as its remaining region schedule, so the Blue Raiders also control their postseason future.

"They may have taken us a little lightly, and they did make some crucial penalties that they don't normally make," Wheeler said. "But at some point the law of averages will get you, and it was just our time. Now we're excited to find out what this can do for us."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.