CLAYTON — Cleveland won its first conference football championship in school history Friday night, downing South Johnston 34-12 in a rainstorm.
The Rams, by virtue of their win over Triton, have wrapped up the league’s No. 1 playoff seeding for the state playoffs and no worse than a share of the Two Rivers 3A Conference championship.
Cleveland (7-3, 4-0) can win the title outright next week with a win over Western Harnett.
“The biggest thing you want is to get as high of a seeding as possible and we’ve taken a big step toward that by being the No. 1 seed from our conference,” said Cleveland coach Marc Morris. “You want to home playoff games and then to play at home for as long as you can. The way you do that is to keep winning and improving your seed.
“It’s a credit to our kids and our coaching staff that they’ve put themselves to do just that, winning a conference championship.”
Teams are seeded for the playoffs by their finish in their respective conferences, then by their overall records. Hence the Rams’ desire to take the title outright and get that eighth win next week.
The Ram backfield tandem of senior running back Isaac Martin and junior quarterback Aaron Farmer both topped the 100-yard mark on the night and ran for multiple touchdowns. But it was the Cleveland punt return unit that swung the game in the Rams’ favor early.
A heavy Ram rush left four players around South Johnston punter Cliff McLamb. The ball didn’t make it out of the pile, giving Cleveland the ball at the South 15. Martin darted around the corner on the next play for a 7-0 lead.
South (2-8, 1-3) drove inside of the Cleveland 20 early in the second quarter but a holding penalty and a sack Bryer Rogers kept the Trojans from getting on the board.
It was the first of three times on the night South couldn’t come up with points after moving the ball into scoring range. Kayvion Dunn made the drive stopping tackles on the second and third occasions.
“Our defense played lights out for as long as they could,” said South Johnston coach Shane Dular. “Offensively we did a lot of good things but we had the ball in the red zone three times where we didn’t come away with points. That’s the difference in the game, right there.”
Farmer broke off a 22-yard TD run midway of the second quarter to push the lead to 13-0. He finished with three rushing TDs and 109 yards on 11 carries.
South got within 13-6 when Gerrodd Raynor scored on 1-yard run late in the second quarter but Cleveland opened the second half with a quick TD drive ending in a 38-yard TD jaunt by Farmer.
The Trojans’ next drive inside of the Cleveland 10-yard-line followed but ended on a Dunn sack. Cleveland upped the lead to 26-6 early in the fourth quarter on a 17-yard TD run by Martin who finished with 147 yards on 19 carries.
South Johnston quarterback Garrett Smith gave Cleveland plenty of worries with his scrambles on the night. He ran for 173 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown.
“Where they hurt us was when the quarterback scrambled,” Morris said. “I thought our DBs covered well and our pass rush was there. Their kid just made big plays with his feet.”
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