In what has already been a wild ride of a prep football season for the Chattanooga area, we're now beginning the stretch run toward the playoffs, a time when the intensity ratchets up enough to make the improbable possible.
Thankfully past the spike in COVID-19 cases from the first two weeks of September that led to 65 game cancellations for area TSSAA teams, we can now look ahead to region showdowns that will settle playoff positioning, with individual players establishing their place among the state's best and upstart teams determined to prove they belong as premier contenders.
If the first half of the season is any indication of what to expect, buckle up.
Count Cleveland as one of those area teams determined to return to championship contender status. To do so would mean earning a program-defining road win when the Blue Raiders travel to face Class 6A's second-ranked Maryville in a Region 2 showdown.
The Blue Raiders are off to a 5-1 start for the first time since 2008 — they've won their past three games by an average score of 40-10 — and have a shot to send notice to the rest of the state with how they handle themselves against a perennial powerhouse.
The Rebels (6-0, 2-0) have beaten all but one opponent by more than 24 points this season, with the lone thriller a three-point win over county rival and fellow championship hoarder Alcoa. Maryville owns 48 straight wins over Chattanooga-area competition, with 25 of those in the playoffs, and all by a resounding average of 42-12. But it isn't just our area the Rebels have dominated, as they also own 138 straight wins over region opponents and have won 13 of the program's 17 state titles during the past 20 years.
"When you get ready to compete against Maryville, most people talk about how well-coached they are and how they don't beat themselves and make you pay for every mistake you make," third-year Cleveland coach Marty Wheeler said. "All of that is true, but the first thing I think of when preparing for them, and we've preached it to our kids since I got here, is that you have to match their physicality.
"They're going punch you in the face, so to stay with them you'd better be able to take that and punch right back. We're a much stronger team physically (this season than in the past), and I'm a firm believer that strength builds confidence. Now we have to go out and prove we can stand toe to toe with them and be just as tough physically."
It was 28 years ago, around the midway point of the season, that Cleveland cashed in a trip to Maryville to establish itself among the state's elite. The Blue Raiders' offense — later nicknamed "Benny and the Jets" after legendary coach Benny Monroe turned a group of track sprinters into as feared an offense as this area has produced — put the rest of the state on notice that night.
Led by turbo twins Keith and Kevin Cobb, as well as Dante Hickey, Tennille Hudgins, Cory Prigmore and others, Cleveland turned every snap it took into a foot race to the goal line, posting a 70-28 runaway on the way to the first of three consecutive Class 4A state championships.
The next year, the last for several seasons for Cleveland and Maryville to be grouped in the same region, the Blue Raiders again cruised to an easy 42-6 win. But that night — Oct. 7 1994 — remains the most recent date a Chattanooga-area team has handed Maryville a defeat.
Since having its 54-game winning streak snapped in the 1996 quarterfinals, Cleveland fell back to Earth and became just another solid but not spectacular program, changing head coaches six times in a 21-year period and advancing past the first round of the playoffs only three times during that span. After averaging 5.6 wins from 2009 to 2018, and not owning a playoff win since 2014, Cleveland turned to Wheeler — who had taken Covington to back-to-back Class 3A title games — to rebuild the Blue Raiders into blue blood status.
"Before I came here, I already knew about Cleveland's history from years ago, and I could tell that the community very much wanted to get back to that level," said Wheeler, whose team's lone loss this season was to intracounty rival Bradley Central as a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns in the second half proved to be the difference.
"To do that, we know we've got to get past Maryville, so we're not getting on the bus to just show up. We've told our kids to play with a chip on their shoulder when they step on that field.
"I know Maryville has a tradition that's just unreal, but sooner or later somebody's going to get them. This is an opportunity for our guys to deal with adversity and see how far we've come. You don't get many chances in life where you could shock an entire state, but that's the opportunity we've got."