The Ravenwood Raptors are heading to their first state championship in four years.
A 28-point unanswered stretch propelled the Raptors to a 42-21 win over the previously unbeaten Houston Mustangs in Friday’s TSSAA 6A state semifinal at Ravenwood High School.
Senior quarterback Brian Garcia (15-23, 189 yards, 3 TDs) and junior wideout Ross Johnston (4 receptions, 51 yards, 2 TDs) connected on two scores as the Raptors overcame a rare early deficit to rack up 329 yards of total offense to advance to the finals.
Ravenwood will face the Maryville Rebels in the 6A finals next Saturday at Tennessee Tech University, four years after the Raptors defeated that very program for its last state championship.
“We got the experience from a lot of the seniors who were in this position last year who knew that it would take that little extra push to get us to where we need to go,” Ravenwood head coach Matt Daniels told Home Page. “You have to really give credit to the senior leaders.”
The lights out Raptors defense had only allowed 6 points through three postseason games, but was punched in the mouth on Houston’s opening drive.
A three-and-out by Ravenwood quickly gave way to a five-play, 69 yard drive enabled by a 48-yard quarterback keeper by Ethan Burns (12-21, 185 yards, 2 TDs) and capped by all-star senior running back Lincoln Pare (40 carries, 140 yards, 1 TD) to put the Mustangs on the board early.
It was as good as it would get for the visitors for the next two-plus quarters.
“We just didn’t come out strong,” noted senior two-way starter Reggie Grimes II (1 rushing TD, 2 tackles), the state’s top prospect who recently committed to the University of Oklahoma. “The message coming out of that drive was just that we had to wake up. After that, we shut down their run game, they didn’t get much after that.”
The offense took a couple of drives to get going, inspired by a Houston three-and-out along with a shanked punt to enjoy favorable field position. Garcia made it a two-play drive, connecting with Johnston on a 28-yard strike to produce a 7-7 tie.
Ravenwood scored on its next drive, with Garcia adding another milestone in this postseason.
Two weeks after moving past 7,000 yards and 80 TDs, the senior field general surpassed the 7,500 yard mark after connecting with the state’s top Class of 2021 prospect, junior tight end Jake 'Drago' Briningstool (6 receptions, 116 yards, 1 TD) on a 13-yard strike. Two plays later, the Raptors took the lead when Smith plowed in on an 8 yard run.
It was a lead the Raptors would never relinquish.
“I’ve been doing this thing with my fellow seniors since our freshman year,” said Jordan Smith (49 rushing yards, 1TD; 7½ tackles, 1 INT). “It’s what we’ve been dreaming of ever since our undefeated season. We’re here to finish the job, get our (national) ranking.”
The Raptors have stormed towards that goal, outscoring opponents 146-27 in four postseason games and with its defense coming up with big plays even at the slightest threat of a momentum shift.
As Ravenwood’s offense suffered back-to-back scoreless drives in the second quarter, Smith anchored a front eight that shut down the potent Mustangs offense which had outscored its playoff opponents, 138-38 prior to Friday.
An interception by Smith early in the second quarter gave Ravenwood a chance to add to its seven-point lead, but would have to put up another defensive stand before getting the ball back.
A five-play, 64 play drive ended with Grimes plowing up the middle for a 14-yard score to give the Raptors its first double-digit lead of the night.
“It still hasn’t sunk in yet,” insisted Grimes, ever the team player. “All we were thinking about was shutting them down and going on to state.”
Houston threatened to strike, opening the second half with a lengthy drive. It would end in heartbreak, as Burns saw daylight for what appeared to be an easy touchdown pass to Grayson Hitt (9 receptions, 167 yards, 2 TDs) instead land in the hands of Junior Colson (9 tackes, 1 sack, 1 INT).
The senior linebacker picked it off at the three yard line, racing to the Ravewood 35. The Raptors didn’t let the moment go to waste, storming downfield as a six-play, 66-yard drive ended with Garcia finding the 6’6” Briningstool on a 4-yard strike to give his home team a commanding 28-7 lead.
“We knew we had a tough task with a 13-0 Houston team,” noted Garcia. “We just executed better than them. What a job by our offensive line, they were just creating huge holes for Jordan and Connor (Pace, 88 rushing yards). Just a ton of credit to them.”
The visiting Mustangs ended the 28-point run, scoring on the very next drive as Hitt snatched a high pass out of thin air, coming down with a one-handed grab on a 4-yard score to bring Houston within 14 points.
A recovered onside kick had the Raptors team and supporting community collectively gasping for breath, but Myles Dawson came up huge on the drive, stuffing Pare after previously sprinting for 13 yards and then tripping up Ben Stegall on an attempted fourth down conversion gone wrong for Houston.
Ravenwood made the Mustangs pay, with Garcia and Johnston connecting for their second touchdown on the night, a 14-yard pass capping a six-play 68-yard drive.
“Ross, Drago (Briningstool)... every time I threw it to them tonight, they just made it so easy for me,” claimed Garcia. “Even little screen passes, they turned it into something so much bigger.”
Even bigger was the Ravenwood lead, going back up by 21, although Houston immediately responded, as Burns and Hitt had their own second score of the night, this time on a perfectly thrown 57-yard pass.
By then, the Raptors knew to eat up as much clock as possible. Houston managed more total yardage (366 to 326), but Ravenwood dominated the ball especially in the fourth quarter with its two final drives totaling nearly eight minutes of game time.
The final drive of the season ended with Smith rushing in his second touchdown of the night, a 5 yard run with 2:02 to play to unofficially kick off the celebration.
“It’s such an amazing feeling, one that nobody on this team has experienced, myself included,” stated Daniels who proudly sported a Ravenwood red mohawk for the occasion. “I think by next week this is supposed to become a Raptors head, but it will be worth it for where we are heading.”
Houston’s dream of an undefeated run to the Blue Cross Bowl falls one game short, as they head back to Germantown with heads held high amidst a 13-1 season.
As for Ravenwood, it’s one step further than was the case a year ago when this same squad fell short to Whitehaven on this very weekend. This time, the Raptors closed the show, extending its current nine-game win streak since a Week 5 loss to Brentwood which they emphatically avenged in a 34-6 victory last weekend on Brentwood’s home field.
It resulted in a home game for Ravenwood, its first in five weeks since a 28-15 win over Cane Ridge in mid-October. The rainy night tore up the Raptors field, relocating two home games to neutral locations and requiring a community effort to get its turf ready in time for game night.
“It’s interesting, what was lost was this being the last ever home game for the seniors. We really didn’t talk about it until (Thanksgiving Day) practice,” stated Daniels. “But going back to last week with getting the tarps down to protect the field—you get a community out here who’s going to put in hours of work just to make sure you play.
“When you hit the playoffs, everybody has to step up—not just the players, not just the coaches. It’s the students, it’s the fans, it’s the community. What I’ve seen this season, it’s blown me away.”
In turn, the Raptors have blown away nearly everyone in their path. Rolling to 13-1, now comes its first state championship since beating Maryville in 2015.
None of the players on either team were around for that game, though Ravenwood’s march to destiny began the following season—this year’s seniors were part of the 2016 Raptors squad which posted the only undefeated season in school history.
Three years of growth has now lead to the Raptors’ return to Cookeville, and its season drawing nostalgia for all the right reasons.
“The last time this school won a championship, it came in a year where the only loss was in Week 5 to a divisional rival,” pointed out Daniels. “Sound familiar? The 2015 team that won the state title went 14-1. We are currently 13-1. They won the title by beating Maryville.
“You can see where I’m going with this, right?”