Garner Cleveland: Sports

After playoff loss, Cleveland football keeps looking forward

There are only a handful of football programs around the area, a few more around the state and a small percentage around the country that wouldn’t trade places with Cleveland.

Yes, the Rams are coming off another season-ending loss that assured they weren’t going to win a state championship. Yes, it was to Southern Durham for the second year in a row, and yes it was a game in which the Rams played hard and basically played pretty well.

They could have won, and in the minds of everybody who follows the program they should have won, because the opportunity was there in a home game lost by an emotional 28-21 outcome in the third round of the state 3AA playoffs.

Last season, when Cleveland fell to Southern 67-48 in the second round on a cold night in Durham, the Rams were good and the Spartans were just better. Southern was good enough to have won the state title last year and the Spartans – who prevailed in a matchup of two very classy programs from two very different environments – were also on a mission.

Cleveland has won 11 playoff games in just five varsity seasons since the school opened in 2009. And Scott Riley, the former assistant who gave up the reins of the Rams’ solid wrestling program to take over football when Marc Morris left after the 2013 season, and his staff have kept the tradition going strong.

“Most of the seniors who played were sophomores when we won the first of three straight conference championships,” Riley said after Friday’s loss. “You really can’t ask more. How many senior classes have won three conference championships?

“We’re definitely optimistic about next year. We always hope to make it through Thanksgiving, and at that point they’re all great teams. And hopefully the ball bounces our way next year.”

There’s no reason to think it shouldn’t.

Junior Caiden Norman took over at quarterback this season and made a habit of playing like he did Friday night when he threw for over 300 yards and completed two-thirds of his passes.

Fellow junior Jacob Scott caught 10 passes for over 150 yards and undersized senior Patrick Jesequel hauled in nine for about 75.

“(Norman) has thrown for over 300 yards quite a bit this year,” Riley said. “That’s a good piece to bring back.”

Norman, who unlike most past Rams quarterbacks is more of a classic drop-back passer than an elusive double-threat speedster, said he thinks the team’s future is bright.

“I felt good,” Norman said. “I threw a couple of bad balls, but I thought I had a pretty good game. I just need to get faster and work hard on getting my deep ball longer. And working better in the pocket.

“I’m confident about next year. We’ll have young guys filling some veteran roles, but I think we should do real well.”

At 5-foot-4, Jesequel looks a lot more like a lightweight wrestling star than a football player but he has more than gotten the job done and is hoping for the right college fit.

“No doubt we were evenly matched teams,” Jesequel said. “I’ve just got to give props to every man on the football field. We played our hearts out every single play.

“I’m really proud of my team. We didn’t win enough snaps when we needed to, but I just really love my team right now. We just had a great group of guys. This is the classiest team I’ve ever been with. People were saying we might go 3-8 but we turned around and finished 10-4.”

Cleveland was Cleveland after playing an early killer schedule that would have turned lesser teams to slime.

Big Zach Jacobs, who played long snapper and left guard, will be playing college football next season.

“We executed our game plan pretty well, but they did what they needed to do to win,” Jacobs said. “We needed to make more plays and it kind of fell through.

“But Cleveland football is always going to be good. I’d say the coaches are the best in the state. They always tell us their job is to make us better men, and that’s also the way to win football games.”