The year came to an especially painful end for Cherokee, which squandered a 20-0 halftime lead and lost 30-20.
With Etowah’s loss to Lassiter, the Warriors (5-5, 3-4 Region 5AAAAAA) would have been bound for the state playoffs for the first time since 2008. Instead, they were left to settle for their highest win total since that same season.
“We played pretty flawlessly in the first half, and we really executed” Cherokee coach Josh Shaw said. “We left a couple of touchdowns on the board, though. I told them, we had an opportunity a few times to hit Wheeler with the knockout punch, and we didn’t.”
Cherokee dominated the first half, scoring on its first possession, a 13-play, 72-yard drive that ended with Blake Johnston’s 2-yard touchdown dive. The Warriors used runs on every down in the drive.
Johnston added another score early in the second quarter, a 6-yard run that give Cherokee a 14-0 lead with 11:52 remaining until halftime.
Sophomore Dwayne Tiller extended the Warriors’ lead to 20-0 on a 15-yard carry with just over 8 minutes remaining, and the game looked to be turning into a Cherokee rout.
The game tipped the other direction slowly in the second half.
Wheeler (3-7, 1-6) made two trips inside the red zone in the third quarter, and failed on both of them, but it got on the scoreboard with a safety when Cherokee quarterback Spencer Ashley had to fall on a bad snap in the end zone.
Later in the quarter, the Wildcats’ offense finally showed up, beginning when quarterback Ryles Kirkland found Tabius Padgett for a 41-yard gain to the Cherokee 26. Four plays later, on fourth-and-4 from the 20, Kirkland connected with Harland Howell in the end zone for Wheeler’s first touchdown of the night.
The ensuing 2-point conversion failed, and the Wildcats trailed 20-8 going to the fourth quarter.
On the first play of the final period, Kirkland kept the ball on a fake handoff and danced through the Cherokee defense for a 20-yard touchdown run to close the deficit to 20-15.
Two possessions later, Wheeler took the lead for good. Kirkland rolled out of the pocket on second-and-12 and found Padgett running to the opposite side of the field for a 21-yard score. Kirkland then floated a pass to a wide-open Howell for a 2-point conversion, and Wheeler led 23-20 with 7:23 left.
Cherokee turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, and Wheeler iced the game with a 22-yard scoring run by Jacobi Green.
“I am so proud that we were able to send the class of 2014 out with a win” Wheeler coach Mike Collins said. “That was the most important thing (Friday) — let these seniors walk off the field with a win.”
For Cherokee, Friday’s loss will be one that will sting until it begins preparing for 2014.
“It hurts,” said Shaw, who completed his second season at the Warriors’ helm. “We have been trying to change the culture at Cherokee, though. To go from 1-9 last year to 5-5 this year, it means a lot. We want to continue to improve next season, but we’re losing some fantastic seniors and, obviously, I was emotional as I said goodbye to them.”
While Wheeler wasn’t in playoff contention Friday, Collins knew that his team could have easily been in the postseason.
“We were one play away in four games this year” said Collins, a former Cherokee player and assistant coach. “We kept telling each other, ‘one play, one play,’ and (on Friday) we made two plays to win the game. That’s something we’re going to build on for next year.”