CLAYTON — Cleveland has an enviable one-two punch and the Rams needed every yard their dynamic duo could gain to pull away from Hope Mills Gray’s Creek for a 33-13 opening round victory in the 3AA state football playoffs.
Isaac Martin wore down the Bears’ defensive front and the senior standout finished with 117 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Aaron Farmer threw for 114 yards and a touchdown and also added 109 yards on the ground to move the Rams into the second round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the only seasons of the program’s existence.
“When you get into playoff time, it’s a special feeling,” Cleveland coach Marc Morris said. “Every game’s hard with the way the state has it set up with 32 teams.
“We’re real fortunate to be going into the second round; that is a real feat.”
The Rams jumped out in front early first thanks to a Gray’s Creek miscue.
Three plays after a Gray’s Creek fumble awarded Cleveland the ball on the Bears’ 15-yard line, Farmer hit Greg Tyler on a slant for an eight-yard touchdown pass three minutes into the contest.
Farmer led the Rams on another scoring drive, this one substantially longer than the first, that ended early in the second quarter with a Corey Brown 13-yard rushing score for a 12-0 lead.
On the 10-play, 81-yard drive, Farmer went 3-3 passing for 32 yards including a 13-yard strike to Alex Raines on fourth down-and-six to keep the drive alive.
Martin found the end zone from one yard out late in the first half to give the Rams a 19-0 lead but Gray’s Creek responded with a four-play drive that ended with senior quarterback Jeff Gibson running it in from two yards out as time expired in the second quarter.
With the game still in the balance and the visitors threatening to make it a one-possession game, the Cleveland defensive line came up huge on the Bears’ opening drive of the second half.
Gray’s Creek (5-7), owners of a punishing rushing attack of its own, moved the ball to the Cleveland two-yard line. But on fourth-and-goal, the interior of the Rams’ defensive front got the push it needed to keep the Bears’ Don McNeill out of the end zone by mere inches.
Cleveland lost the ball two plays later but the Bears lost their own fumble recovery out of the end zone and the Rams scored on the ensuing possession. Farmer and Martin would take it from there, helping to win the time of possession as the Rams improved to 9-3.
“That was probably one of the biggest moments of the game right there,” Morris said. “I know we got it out of the end zone and then with us scoring there to put us up by three scores—that was the difference in the game.”
McNeill and Gibson led Gray’s Creek in rushing with 145 yards and 106 yards, respectively.