Cleveland clinched the Greater Neuse 3-A Conference football championship with a 28-13 win at county rival South Johnston on Thursday night.
“They’re a well-coached team,” said South Johnston coach Matthew Riggsbee. “They’ve got a lot of good players. They’ve got everything going on for them right now. My hat’s off to coach (Scott) Riley and his team and I wish the best of luck to them throughout the state playoffs. I’m pulling for them to win a state championship.”
Riggsbee was pleased with the performance by the Trojans’ defense.
“Defense played awesome the entire game,” Riggsbee said. “Are you going to give up big plays against a team like this? Absolutely. But they had to earn this win. Week in and week out, they don’t have to earn their wins (five of Cleveland’s wins this season have been in blowout fashion) and we made them earn this one.”
Senior South quarterback Josh Schindler completed 5-of-8 passes for 39 yards, with one interception, before leaving the game with a hand injury late in the first quarter. In his stead, sophomore Chase Carroll was 6-of-14 passing for 85 yards and a touchdown.
“I was never anticipating Chase’s first varsity game to be this one,” Riggsbee said. “But, we have gotten him in to play some significant snaps this year. Chase is a talented quarterback and he is a smart quarterback and he’s got a great quarterback coach. Chase and Josh are like brothers and as soon as Josh was hurt, Chase had his back and Josh was there for him the rest of the game. I’m proud of both of them for that.”
Jaequan Wells ran for 97 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and Tony Faison ran for 54 yards on seven carries and had a two-yard reception to also lead the Trojans (7-3, 3-2 GNC).
“They are completely different style runners,” Riggsbee said. “Both have their own talents. That’s important to have because the defense gets used to one style and the next guy comes in there. We kind of have a running back that’s going to smash you and one that’s going to shake you. I like that they can mix it up and play off of each other. I’m excited that they’re both juniors and I’m going to have them again.”
Tony Alston had two receptions for 47 yards. Heze Bailey had five receptions for 26 yards. Jawuan Smith had two receptions for 25 yards and a 12-yard run. Jaquan Smith had a 24-yard touchdown reception.
In addition to Schindler’s injury, South also had to deal with personnel losses due to the ejections of Cody Allen, in the second quarter, and Jawuan Smith, in the third quarter. Riggsbee was confident an appeal of Allen’s ejection would be successful.
“It absolutely had an impact on the game,” Riggsbee said. “I’m real disappointed in one out of the two. One of them, I’m going to appeal it and we’re going to win it, because we’ve seen it on replay. The other one, I just told them in the locker room, ‘Every single choice you make will show up on Friday night.’ We’ve just got to change our habits, because they’re going to come back to bite you during a game.”
Darius Ocean completed 17-of-29 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception, Jon Barnes had six receptions for 112 yards and two touchdowns, Jalen Chadwick ran for 84 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries and had two receptions for 10 yards and Omarion Hampton ran for 81 yards on 10 carries to lead the Rams (9-1, 5-0).
South started the game strong, getting a short field from an unsuccessful Cleveland onside kick and scoring on the first play from scrimmage on a 56-yard Wells run. Dylan Lambert made the extra point.
Late in the first, South looked to score again, but Cleveland recovered a fumble on its own 10-yard-line and took advantage with a scoring drive capped by a 48-yard Chadwick run. Wyatt Covey made the extra point.
Midway through the second, Cleveland took the lead on a 20-yard pass from Ocean to Kouren Artis. The extra point was blocked by Jawuan Smith.
Ocean connected with Barnes for a pair of touchdowns in the second half: a 10-yard score in the third (Ocean ran for two) and a 32-yard score in the fourth (Covey made the extra point).
Late in the fourth, South scored on a 24-yard pass from Carroll to Jaquain Smith. The extra point was no good.
Both sides will host make-up non-conference games for Senior Night to end the regular season next Friday. South Johnston hosts Union Pines (4-5) and Cleveland hosts Fuquay-Varina (6-3).
“We’ve got a couple of guys banged up and a couple of starters that are going to be out,” Riggsbee said. “I’m proud of the guys that have stepped up and played in their place. We’ve just got to get over this game, get through the weekend and focus on Union Pines. That is the only thing that matters right now is beating Union Pines.”