Despite the slow start that saw the Wildcats struggle with ball security and offensive continuity, they were able to weather the storm and win five of their last seven regular season games and earn a two seed in the 4A State Football Playoffs.
The Wildcats (9-5) have turned their season around and now find themselves one step closer to the 4A State Title game as they welcome the Lafayette High School Commodores (9-5) to town at 7 p.m. Friday in the 4A North Half Title game.
Cleveland made it to the North Half title game by defeating Rosa Fort 22-17 last week. The win came as a result of a huge effort from the Wildcat defense that turned the Lions away with three different goal line stands, including a game winning stand with a second left in the game from the two-yard line.
Cleveland High head coach Kelly Causey said after the win over Rosa Fort that his team's defensive effort had been amazing over the past few weeks.
"Our defense has kind of struggled a little bit, but the last few weeks we have done a lot better. We've had some guys to really step up. I am so proud of the guys," said Causey.
Causey also felt following Friday's victory that the team was together and was not worried about outside voices, but focused on the job at hand.
"We're taken each step as we go here,” Causey said. “Not a lot of people are giving us a chance, but we don't care. We are going to continue to work our butts off and show up Friday and see what happens.”
The Wildcats will enter Fridays contest averaging 25.1 points per game. In the playoffs, Cleveland has been better scoring 39.7 points per game in three contests. Defensively, the Wildcats have allowed 23.3 points per contest.
The Commodores have not scored as many points in the playoffs with just 13.3 points per game, but on the flip side the team has recorded two shutouts in the playoffs and only allowed 12 points through three games.
Cleveland made it to this point in the season with a 42-32 win over West Lauderdale, a 55-21 win over Byhalia and of course the win over Rosa Fort last week.
Lafayette beat Itawamba Agricultural 24-12, Greenwood 7-0 and Noxubee 9-0.
On the year, the Wildcats have been a strong running football team at 243.4 rushing yards a game. Cleveland's running game has experienced a great deal of success behind a strong offensive line led by senior Austin McLemore and junior Austin Killion.
Andonte Maxie, Earnest Butler and Vaughnte Dorsey have been the main ball carriers for the Wildcats. Maxie has rushed for 1,225 yards on 214 carries with 11 touchdowns, Butler has 904 yards on 184 carries with 12 touchdowns and Dorsey has 764 yards on 157 carries with 10 touchdowns.
On the year, the Wildcats have run the ball 89-percent of the time.
Although the Wildcats do not throw the ball much, when they do decide to air it out, Dorsey has found dependable targets in Maxie, Kyran Parker, Butler and Truman Brown.
For Lafayette, the running game has been strong as well averaging 177.3 yards per game. Tyrell Price leads the team on the ground with 1,150 yards on 199 carries with five touchdowns. In addition, DK Buford has been a force with 994 yards on 207 carries with 15 touchdowns.
In the passing game, quarterback Devin Thomas has completed 67-of-123 passes for 1,202 yards with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His main targets have been Price, Buford, Landon Busby (4 TD rec.), Dillon Helm and Montreal Nabors.
Larry Douglas III (109 tackles, 5 int., 2 sacks and 10 tackles for loss) has led the Wildcats defense. Dorsey (109 tackles, 3 int.) Dillon Norwood (106 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks), Jamal Fifer (63 tackles, 5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss) Darren Williams (72 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) and Truman Brown are all big contributors on the Wildcats' defense.
Quin Jones leads the Commodores’ defense (137 tackles, 4 sacks), followed by Kam Herod (125 tackles, five sacks), Trey Shaw (99 tackles, int), Darren Toles (69 tackles, 11 sacks) and Cam Pettis (37 tackles, 4 int).
Sophomore Eli Johnson, who is originally from Cleveland, has been a solid offensive lineman for the Commodores.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. with ticket prices at $8.
The winner of the North Half Title game will face the winner of the South Half Title game between Quitman and Forest County AHS for the state championship on Dec. 7 at 3 p.m. at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium in Jackson.