Cleve­land takes its high-scor­ing of­fen­sive show to 3AA fi­nals

The News & Observer - - Sports - BY JONAS POPE IV [email protected]­ald­sun.com

Ev­ery year Cleve­land High School head coach Scott Ri­ley hosts a com­bine for ris­ing ninth-graders, putting the soon-to-be fresh­men through a se­ries of tests to see where they stand ath­let­i­cally.

Ri­ley re­mem­bers putting a par­tic­u­lar group through the paces two years ago and when he got back to his of­fice telling his as­sis­tant coaches “guys if we don’t screw this up we can win a state cham­pi­onship with this group right here.”

So far they haven’t screwed it up, as the Rams are on the brink of their first state cham­pi­onship ap­pear­ance. Cleve­land (12-2) trav­els to South­east Guil­ford (13-1) for the 3AA Eastern Re­gional cham­pi­onship at 7:30 p.m. on Fri­day. Led by ju­nior quar­ter­back Dar­ius Ocean, Cleve­land’s wide-open of­fense, or bas­ket­ball on grass, as one fan de­scribed it, has been light­ing it up all sea­son.

As the old say­ing goes, de­fense wins cham­pi­onships, but it’s the high­oc­tane Rams’ of­fense that’s stolen the show this year.

OCEAN LEAD­ING THE WAY

A lot of the suc­cess of the of­fense is built on the arm of Ocean, who started as a sopho­more, but re­ally put it all to­gether this sea­son. When he first handed Ocean the keys to the of­fense, Ri­ley let him know things were bit sim­pler on ju­nior var­sity, and that he would have to step up his game on Fri­day nights. Two years in the sys­tem and things are com­ing a lot eas­ier for Ocean with ex­pe­ri­ence.

The 6-0, 187 pound ju­nior has put up video game num­bers, throw­ing for 3,525 yards and 34 touch­downs this sea­son.

“Now that he’s two years in it,” Ri­ley said, “he’s got it all down.”

The Cleve­land spread, like many foot­ball teams these days, doesn’t re­quire a hud­dle. Ocean and his team­mates look to the side­line for the play call, but he is re­spon­si­ble for all the reads. If it’s a run play, Ocean reads the de­fen­sive line­man. If it’s an RPO (run pass op­tion) Ocean is scan­ning the lineback­ers. He has free­dom for the reads, and his num­bers show more times than not, he gets it right.

“I wish he had it all the time, but it’s been a work in progress,” Ri­ley said.

Ocean was in­jured against Clay­ton dur­ing his sopho­more year and re­turned in time for the 2017 post­sea­son, miss­ing just two games. In the play­off opener against North­ern Durham last sea­son, Ocean com­pleted 14 passes in 21 at­tempts for 168 yards and four touch­downs in a 53-10 win. It was Ocean’s play­off de­but, and Ri­ley was con­vinced he could lead the way.

“I would say from that point on,” Ri­ley ex­plained, “he had full con­trol of the of­fense.”

WEAPONS FOR OCEAN

Ocean has had plenty of help. Again, Ri­ley left that pre­sea­son com­bine two sea­sons ago im­pressed with what he had to work with. This year’s team, Ri­ley ex­plained, isn’t as big as Cleve­land teams in the past, which were blessed with big of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive line­men, but there are plenty of ath­letic op­tions up and down the ros­ter who know what to do with the ball once they get it in their hands.

It starts in the back­field with se­nior run­ning back Tyson Dew, who, in a pass-happy of­fense, still man­aged to rush for 1,356 yards and 17 touch­downs. Of the group of tal­ented re­ceivers, seven dif­fer­ent play­ers have dou­ble-digit catches, led by se­nior Jon Barnes (61 catches, 918 yards, 10 touch­downs) and his class­mates Carter Grif­fin (58 catches, 1,132 yards, 12 TDs).

Kouren Ar­tis (28-470, 6 TDs) or Kaleb Scott (24411, 3 TDs) would prob­a­bly be the main threat if they played for any other team in the area.

“From the mo­ment they stepped on cam­pus they’ve been ath­letic,” Ri­ley said. “It’s just been a mat­ter of ma­tur­ing and teach­ing them the of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive scheme.”

DE­FENSE OVER­LOOKED?

The of­fense sells tick­ets, again, but the old say­ing goes that de­fense is what re­ally wins cham­pi­onships. The Cleve­land of­fense is the show, make no mis­take about it, but the de­fense, Ri­ley said, has been over­looked this sea­son.

De­fen­sively, the Rams have had two shutouts, in­clud­ing one in the open­ing round of the play­offs, and held six op­po­nents to eight points or less. Last week in a 36-6 win over Hill­side, the Hor­nets’ score came after a kick­off re­turn to the 2-yard line. The pre­vi­ous week, Cleve­land de­feated D.H. Con­ley 40-35, but a sim­ple glance at the boxs­core doesn’t tell the story.

The Vikings only had one scor­ing drive that cov­ered more than 40 yards. Con­ley re­turned a kick­off for a score and four Rams’ turnovers set the Vikings up in­side the 10. Cleve­land also threw an in­ter­cep­tion for a score.

“We re­ally cred­ited (the de­fense) with giv­ing up 14 in that game even though it said 35 on the score­board,” Ri­ley said. “So the de­fense has played re­ally well most of the sea­son, but re­ally well in the play­offs. Peo­ple don’t no­tice that be­cause of our rep­u­ta­tion, but it’s been the dif­fer­ence in the play­offs. A lack of ath­leti­cism from year-to-year re­ally shows up on the de­fen­sive end. We’ve had some bad de­fenses in the past, but this year is not one of them.”

With the of­fense get­ting most of the credit, the de­fense doesn’t get jeal­ous. In fact, they used it as mo­ti­va­tion dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son. In the post­sea­son, Ri­ley has no­ticed that most of his play­ers – on both sides of the ball – aren’t check­ing their stats after the game any­more. One game away from a state ti­tle game, there has been only one stat that mat­ters.

“This time of year all they care is if they win and ad­vance,” Ri­ley said. “I told them the be­gin­ning of the play­offs we’re all go­ing to win or we’re all go­ing to lose, not one per­son is go­ing on to the (next) round by them­selves, so they re­ally em­braced that, what­ever it takes to win.”

STEVEN WOR­THY News and Ob­server file photo

Cleve­land High School’s Jon Barnes, left, and Dar­ius Ocean cel­e­brate a touch­down against Clay­ton ear­lier this sea­son. On Fri­day, the Rams travel to South­east Guil­ford for the 3AA Eastern Re­gional cham­pi­onship .

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