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CLAYTON - With close to 4,000 yards of total offense and 44 touchdowns, Cleveland junior quarterback Darius Ocean is the inaugural Johnstonian News Offensive Player Of The Year.
"It feels pretty good," Ocean said about winning the honor. "I just wish we could've won states honestly. The individual awards don't really matter as much as the team awards."
The team came up just short of making the title game as they fell in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association's 3-AA Eastern championship game, 37-33, to Southeast Guilford.
"We expected to have a pretty good season, and of course we wanted to go further than we went, but it felt good getting out there and getting our feet wet in the playoffs," Cleveland junior and Johnstonian News All-County second team wide receiver Kouren Artis said. "With the receivers we had this year, our O-line improving this year, and the running backs, it helped him (Ocean) have the pieces around him to succeed."
Ocean, the All-County first-team quarterback, piloted an offense that put up 40.7 points per game, helping the Rams to earn the fifth conference title in school history with a 12-3 record - 5-0 against the 3-A Greater Neuse River Conference opposition.
In Ocean's second year starting, the entire offense benefitted from his big jump in play. The Rams went from a team that ran the ball 60 percent of the time in Ocean's first season to about 53 percent this past season. Senior All-County first-team wide receivers Joi Williams, who was named Johnstonian News Wide Receiver of the Year, and Jon Barnes both had 1,000-yard receiving seasons and more than 10 receiving TDs each, while last year they each had over 700 yards and less than 10 receiving touchdowns. All-County first-team senior running back Tyson Dew, due to the emergence of junior Jalen Chadwick, had his carries decreased but saw a jump in yards per carry from 7.0 to 8.5.
"The most successful people in life serve others and do things for other," Cleveland head coach Scott Riley said.
Now the question is after a season of completing 66 percent of his passes for 3,757 passing yards, 36 TDs and 9 INT to go with 158 rushing yards, 8 TDS, what is left for Ocean to do?
"To be better than last year, to be a better leader because our team is going to be kind of young because we're losing all our seniors," Ocean said. "More people are going to look up to me."
Williams believes Ocean will have no problem completing his goals next year.
"They have Darius back, he's a leader so he'll pick the team up," Williams said.
The Rams will also have back on their offensive line junior Wesley King, an All-County first-team pick.
"It was pretty fun to see how they could celebrate and do all of that after we could paved the way for them," King quipped of his offensive teammates. "They give us credit after the game, though, and that's all that really matters. Trusting each other is what you have to do to succeed."
The offense considers itself a tight knit group. Ocean said every game day, him and a few members from the offense would go to Waffle House for breakfast to bond and get their mind off the game. The offense said they knew there were a special group before the season started, and some said before that.
"I started realizing around summer how much talent we had, but I mean even though I've always known since freshman year we had a lot of great guys who could play ball," All-County first-team offensive lineman and senior Darius Bennett said. "We always had that chemistry coming up. We've always known it would be a good season. We always hang out with each other to make sure we have a close chemistry and bond so that way it can work out on the football field."