WILSON — Some folks might have said one trip deep into the state playoffs was little beginners’ luck.
But to do it twice in as many years? That’s a statement.
Cleveland ended its state 3AA playoff run with a 33-28 third-round loss Friday night at Wilson Hunt, the game ending when the Rams’ halfback pass from the 15-yard line fell harmlessly to the ground at the final horn.
That ended a 12-2 season for the Rams’ first senior class, members of a group that has gone 23-6 in the school’s only two varsity seasons. Last year the Rams were the talk of the state when they won three 3A playoff games and didn’t bow out until a 64-7 loss at eventual state champion Havelock in the Eastern final.
Add those two seasons to a perfect campaign two years ago when the Rams – then with only freshmen and sophomores – were perfect against a JV slate in which they treated home contests with all the pageantry of varsity games, and former Harnett Central mentor Marc Morris seems to be building a rock-solid program.
“We’ve made kids believe they can do it, and understanding that through hard work and dedication they can get things done,” Morris said after Friday’s loss. “The kids believe in what we’re trying to teach. We’ve got a great coaching staff and the kids are working really hard. We’ve just got to get to be a couple of points better.
“But no complaints. I’m proud of our young men. They’ve set a standard for us and done a great job.”
The Rams have gotten plenty of attention for their potent offense, and that was evident again on Friday night. Cleveland had no trouble moving the ball, putting up 400 yards total offense to 172 for Hunt, but it was four turnovers that proved to be their undoing.
Slightly built sophomore Aaron Farmer, who moved into the starting quarterback spot in the fifth game of the season and led a stirring 22-16 comeback at North Lenoir and didn’t miss another beat, completed 24 of 39 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns.
“This year I’ve learned that if I keep my composure, good things can happen,” Farmer said. “We’re going to go back to the playoffs again next year and do everything we can to get a ring. We’ll just have to keep going hard in the weight room and at practice.
“This is a big accomplishment, but we want to play in a college stadium and win a ring.”
Junior running back Isaac Martin carried 25 times for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns Friday night. And that came four weeks to the day after he had suffered a torn MCL.
“I’m not satisfied,” Martin said. “We were hoping to come out with a win.
“I think the coaches make this program special. They really care about the players, and they push us to work hard and get us to care about each other. We’ll be back next year and we plan to win it.”
Junior Donqua Williams caught 12 passes for 147 yards and both of Farmer’s TD tosses against the Warriors.
“We’d like to have some plays back, but we played hard and tried our best,” Williams said. “We’ve made a statement for future teams. Everybody we play knows we’re out here to play hard.
“Next season we’re going to come back harder, doing things faster, working harder and catching and throwing better.”
Cleveland may or may not make a long playoff run next season, but what is struck in stone is the legacy of the 20-some seniors who established a winning tradition at lightning speed.
“I think we had a lot of success,” said senior Nick Locklear, who will leave a hole to fill in the secondary. “We came out and did our best.
“We’ve come out and practiced hard and lifted hard. We’ve had great coaches, and we’ve come out and executed. People underestimated us because of our size, and they were wrong.”
Morris has already experienced a state title game, although he’s still looking for a ring. In his final season at Harnett Central the Trojans went 15-1 and lost 14-13 to Asheville Reynolds in the 4A championship game at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“We took Hunt to the last play and just couldn’t get it done,” Morris said. “Any time you toe it up in the playoffs, you’ve got to play well. You can see how much it means in the kids’ eyes. As long as you play with emotion and that kind of passion it’s all good.”