Down 14-0 early, Cleveland never panicked and their response electrified the crowd at John Jacobs Stadium Friday.
The Rams turned the tide with 28 unanswered points and never looked back in a 49-21 victory over county rival Clayton. It’s Cleveland’s first ever regional football championship.
“I’m so proud of them,” Rams head coach Scott Riley said. “They’ve fought through a lot of adversity this year especially with the pandemic. It was tough to be down two scores in a game like this, but my team refused to lose tonight.”
Both defenses got off to a good start, but eventually it was the Comets who struck first. Noah Anderson found Jayden Farrington for a 76-yard touchdown.
After forcing a three-and-out, Clayton was off and running again. Senior Dashawn Hinton raced down the field for another 76-yard score on the ensuing play and Clayton was quickly up 14-0.
Cleveland responded quickly as Skyler Locklear hit Jashawn Middleton for a 59-yard touchdown strike. Clayton fumbled on the ensuing kickoff return and Cleveland suddenly had the ball in plus territory.
Locklear’s second touchdown pass to Nick Roccia quickly tied the game early in the second quarter. The senior wideout has stepped up big in the last two weeks.
“It’s surreal to be in this position, Roccia said. “We’ve been in situations where we’ve had to comeback and our team doesn’t quit.”
Then, the Rams went to an unsung hero: running back Isaac Piatek.
The sophomore broke through for a 22-yard touchdown to give Cleveland their first lead. After recovering an onside kick, Piatek scored again to double the Rams advantage.
“I wanted to step up for my teammates,” said Piatek, who had never played running back until this week. “It’s a dream come true to do it a big game and help my team win.”
A late touchdown from Anderson to Farrington brought Clayton back in it, but Cleveland led, 28-21 at the break.
Locklear began the second half with a 46-yard scamper. Later, he’d score on a 10-yard carry to put the Rams back up 14.
“We’ve worked so hard for this moment,” the junior quarterback said. “This is a goal we all had in mind and we’re not done yet.”
After the Comets punted, the Rams drove back down the field to continue their momentum. Locklear hit Carter Griffith for a score to expand their lead.
“This is a special team,” the senior wideout said. “Coach Riley told us to keep battling after we went down and we responded well.”
Piatek’s third rushing touchdown closed the scoring and started the celebration for Cleveland. The Rams defense and special teams were excellent as well led by linebacker Hunter Morris.
“I’ve been playing football for a long time,” he said. “My goal was never to play college football because that was a long ways away. Playing for a state championship and doing it with my brothers has always been a dream of mine.”
Cleveland will face Winston-Salem Mt. Tabor for the 3-AA state title next Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.
A photo album of pictures can be found here: