For each year in its young history, the Cleveland football team has hosted a first round NCHSAA playoff game and, after a 37-31 victory Friday night against Union Pines, the Rams have emerged victorious each time.
It wasn’t so easy this time, however.
The Cleveland defense came up big twice in the fourth quarter as the Vikings (6-6) moved into scoring position and threatened to take the lead.
On the first such occasion, Malik Wiggins came up with a fumble recovery on the Rams 32-yard line.
Then, with less than two minutes remaining and Union Pines facing a fourth-and-7 at the Cleveland 16-yard line, the Vikings’ Ben Bowbliss looked for Brandon Deloatch in the end zone but the pass was too long.
“I thought the defense played fairly well,” Cleveland coach Scott Riley said. “I think our defense really focused in the second half and dug deep.”
The Rams (9-3) fell behind early in the first quarter before reeling off 28 consecutive points to take a 34-14 lead midway through the second quarter.
Caiden Norman threw for 154 yards and two touchdown passes while also carrying the ball for 163 yards. Corey Brown also added 84 yards on the ground and found the end zone twice.
The Rams offense had no problem moving the ball in the first half as Norman ran the read option to perfection early on against the No. 15 seed from the Cape Fear Valley Conference.
With the Vikings forced to focus their attention on stopping the Rams ground game, Norman opened up the offense and took to the air.
The junior quarterback connected with Jaylyn Pearce and Jacob Scott for a pair of TD passes in the second quarter as Cleveland, which hosts Hope Mills Gray’s Creek next week, built the big lead.
Despite falling behind in the first minute of the game, Union Pines showed no fear of the Two Rivers Conference champions and scored on each of their opening two possessions to take the 14-6 lead.
Bowbliss quickly maneuvered the Vikings into the red zone on each of the first two drives and Kalon Green finished off both marches down the field with touchdown runs of one and four yards.
A Sam Parsons field goal and a Bowbliss touchdown pass to Justin Everhart cut the Rams lead to six points.
Bowbliss ended with 212 yards passing and two touchdowns and added 111 more yards on the ground.
After a near perfect first half, the Cleveland offense was stymied by a pair of turnovers in the second half and was forced to punt on two more of its second half possessions which allowed the Vikings to creep back into the game.
As the Rams advance, Riley will look for a complete game from both sides of the ball.
“We’ve just got to put it all together,” said Riley. “Both of them showed flashes of being a deep playoff team but you can’t have flashes at this point of the season, you’ve got to do it all the time.”
3AA Playoffs, Round Two -
Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Hope Mills Gray’s Creek (9-3) at Cleveland (9-3)
Meet the Bears: Gray’s Creek is coming off of a 69-point night in the first round against Jacksonville and averages 38.8 points a game. … The Bears get most of their yards by running the ball with Calvin Boyd (1,987 yards, 25 TDs) and Leyland McDonald (1,321, 16). … Defensively, Derrick Jackson and Elijah Phillips are the guys to avoid. Both average more than 10 tackles a contest.
The winner gets: either No. 6 seed Hillsborough Orange or No. 3 seed Southern Durham on Nov. 27.