As Ravenwood showed with last week’s semifinal win over West Tennessee power Whitehaven — and throughout its entire season, really — that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
The Raptors, who managed just over 100 yards of offense a week ago, relied on a pair of Crews Holt field goals, including a school-record 55-yarder, along with Chris Rowland’s 80-yard, third-quarter kick return for a touchdown, to take down the talented Tigers.
“We were physically outmatched,” third-year Ravenwood coach Will Hester said of the team’s 20-13 triumph. “(Whitehaven) was bigger and stronger than we were. That’s the way it had to be.”
The Raptors, squaring off against East Tennessee powerhouse Maryville in the Class 6A championship for the second time in as many seasons, are hoping that often-used cat cliché also applies to Rebels.
“We’re not the explosive team we used to be,” said Rowland, one of 36 seniors of this year’s roster. “But our motto for the year has been ‘next man up.’ Everybody has stepped up, and I’m just hoping that we can finish it this season — finish what we started.”
Last year’s team, which featured a prolific offense led by 2015 graduates and current college football players Cole Brown (Chattanooga), Van Jefferson (Ole Miss) and Austin Percy (SMU), came up a couple plays short of knocking off 15-time champion Maryville a season ago.
After jumping out to a 28-7 first-quarter advantage, however, the Rebels clawed their way back, eventually knotting things up at 28-28 before blocking Holt’s potential game-winning 32-yard-field goal to force overtime.
The very same player who blocked the kick, 2015 Class 6A Mr. Football Lineman of the Year T.D. Blackmon (120 tackles, 2 sacks), also intercepted Brown’s 2-point conversion pass in the end zone, sealing the 35-34 victory.
“Congrats to (Blackmon) and congrats to Maryville, but we’ve got some work to do,” Holt, the 2015 Mr. Football Kicker of the Year, said at Monday’s Mr. Football Awards ceremony at Nissan Stadium. “We’re really focused, and if I get another chance, hopefully I’ll knock it through.”
Points of emphasis
If Ravenwood hopes to have any chance snapping Maryville’s state-leading 44-game winning streak, it will almost certainly need to manufacture more offense than last week’s 116-yard, 20-point performance.
“It’s been said by a lot of people that if you don’t score 35 points you’re not going to have a chance to beat Maryville,” Hester said. “We scored 34 last year, so 35 just might be the magic number.”
Tallying five touchdowns against the three-time defending champion won’t be easy, especially considering the Rebels’ defense is allowing an average of just 9.7 points — good enough for fourth in the state. The unit has also forced 26 turnovers while not allowing a single opponent to eclipse the 20-point mark.
The Raptors’ potent run-first offense — featuring the senior backfield trio of Rowland (744 yards rushing, 10 TDs), running back Connor Jeffries (1,015 yards, 12 TDs) and quarterback Andrew Rappe (921 yards, 13 TDs) — will need to be on top of its game.
“We don’t have home run hitters everywhere you look, but we have guys stepping up all over the place,” said Rowland. “Guys like Connor Jeffries and (junior wide receiver) Nathan Freeman have really helped take the pressure off me, and Rappe has stepped up big, too.”
While he doesn’t have quite the same numbers Brown did a season ago, aside from his nightmarish four-interception performance in the Raptors’ lone loss of the season — a 30-13 defeat at rival Centennial on Sept. 11 — the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Rappe has been pretty efficient through the air.
In Ravenwood’s 12 wins, Rappe has completed 57 percent of his passes (57-of-100) for 1,074 yards and 12 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
“People doubt his throwing ability, but he can really spin it,” added Rowland, the team’s leading receiver (47 catches, 924 yards, 9 TDs).
It’s not impossible to imagine Ravenwood finding the end zone five times on Saturday night, but that will likely require its outstanding special teams units to supplement at least a couple scores.
“My teammates and I knew that this year might have some closer games,” Holt said. “I just stayed focused in the offseason knowing that we probably wouldn’t be winning games by 40 or 50 points.”
“We’ve done a wonderful job of winning on special teams with Crews Holt and (punter) Grayson Linde,” Hester added. “Crews has made three kicks over 50 yards this year. Our special teams kids are playing hard, and that’s been a big part of our success.”
Hester’s not just talking about the kicking games, either.
Thanks to Rowland, the Raptors are also one of the most dangerous teams in the state when it comes to returns.
In addition to last week’s eventual game-winning 80-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Rowland also notched a 95-yard return for a score in the Ravenwood’s season-opening win over Siegel. The 5-foot-9, 170-pounder has also brought back three punts this season, two of which came in the 52-7 victory over Lebanon in early October.
“I’m really confident coming into this week,” Rowland said. “It’s me and mine versus them and theirs, and I’m pretty confident with my group.”
Matchup: Class 6A title game vs. Maryville (14-0), 7 p.m. Saturday
Top players: Chris Rowland (Sr. RB), Conner Jeffries (Sr. RB), Andrew Lutgens (Sr. DB), Crews Holt (Sr. K), John Thompson (Sr. WR/LB), Brad Bloedorn (Sr. TE/DL)
Points scored: 515 (36.8)
Points allowed: 186 (13.3)
Playoff results: Def. Bartlett 55-7, Overton 35-0, White Station 55-35, Whitehaven 20-13