Area's longest prep football winning streaks
Cleveland 54 straight, Sept. 1993-Nov. 1996
Marion County 30 straight, Sept. 1994-Aug. 1996
Marion County 26 straight, Sept. 1992-Nov. 1993
South Pittsburg 26 straight, Aug. 2007-Nov. 2008
Baylor 25 straight, 1943-45
Howard 24 straight, Sept. 1960-Oct. 1962
CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Some have added a few extra pounds and wrinkles. For others there's noticeably more salt than pepper dotting their hairline, or less hair at all. But time has done nothing to lessen the memory of what they accomplished as a group.
And as memorable dates go, many of the players from Cleveland's 1993 football team admit this 20-year anniversary of the start of the program's 54-game win streak ranks up there with weddings and children's birthdays.
"It was a special time and there aren't many days, especially during the football season, where somebody doesn't mention it still," said Heath Ware, a senior left tackle on that team and now Cleveland's offensive line coach. "I have guys in my own family who had better careers than me, but when we start talking about who was the best, I can always end every argument just by reminding them I was on the team that started the streak.
"Coach [Benny] Monroe told us before that season started to go make some memories. None of us knew at the time just how big a memory we were making."
Cleveland had finished the 1992 regular season unbeaten but lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Blue Raiders wouldn't lose again until the quarterfinals of the 1996 playoffs, on a frozen field at Anderson County -- a span of more than four years. Included were three consecutive Class 4A state championships.
When the streak finally was snapped at 54, it ranked as the state's longest. Maryville eclipsed that total by winning an astounding 74 in a row from 2004 to '08.
"I've never seen a high school team more talented than that 1993 team," Monroe said. "We'd had teams before that had gone undefeated during the season, but looking back now on the streak and what those kids accomplished, it's quite phenomenal.
"At the time, we were just trying to win a state championship and then after the first one, get back to win another one. The streak didn't become a reality to me until after the end of the third season. That's when it got built up by a lot of people.
"It's something now that hangs in the minds of everyone around Cleveland. When the players show up for a reunion, they've got their chest stuck out, some wear their letterman's jackets, and you can just tell they're all really proud of what they accomplished."
After opening the 1993 season with a resounding 70-0 thumping of Hixson, Cleveland had only one game that was decided by fewer than 21 points. That was a 26-21 decision over unbeaten and nationally ranked Brentwood Academy in the state title game when Cory Prigmore hit Keith Cobb on a slant pass near the goal line with just 43 seconds remaining. In that game, Cleveland held the Eagles to two first downs in the second half.
"People didn't realize how good we were defensively, because we scored so many points," said Monroe, who stepped down as coach after the streak-ending loss at Anderson County. "Everybody talks about the offensive speed, but you just couldn't score on us. We had 11 stallions on defense. You could have taken any one of those guys and built an entire team around them. Just one of them. And we had 11.
"We wound up with 10 of our starting 11 on defense to sign a college scholarship. I've coached a lot of teams and players, but I've never had a team close to the talent level we had on that team. The only weakness was punter, but we never punted."
While Cleveland finished the next two seasons as undefeated state champ, it's the 1993 Blue Raiders that remain, for many fans, the best team this area has ever produced. That season Cleveland outscored opponents 623-105, or by an average of 42 points. The Blue Raiders were six games into the season before an opponent scored a touchdown, and they allowed seven points or less 10 times, including five shutouts.
Those Blue Raiders were so talented that Dante Hickey was a fourth option to carry the ball, behind 1,000-yard rushers Keith and Kevin Cobb and Chris Whaley. The next season, Hickey was a finalist for the state's Mr. Football award.
"When I think back on that team that started the streak, I just remember how close we all were," Ware said. "We had all played together since little league, so we were like a family. Our senior class never lost a game from our seventh-grade season on.
"After the games, instead of going out with our girlfriends, we'd go hang out at each other's houses. I don't know if I've ever felt that connection again anywhere. We still stay in contact with each other, and I see a lot of the guys come by practice or our games to watch and support us now. It's a bond we have that, to this day, we're all real proud of."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.