The Warriors shook off a loss in their first game and snapped off four straight victories — each more impressive than the last — to finish with the second-best record in their pool on the opening day of the Georgia Invitational 7-on-7 Tournament at Lassiter High School.
Cherokee will open today’s double-elimination bracket as the No. 6 seed and will have a first-round bye. The Warriors will play at 9:30 a.m. against the winner of an earlier game between M.L. King and Chattanooga Christian of Tennessee.
First-year Warriors coach Josh Shaw pushed his players to rise to the level of the talented tournament field after opening with a 31-15 loss to Lovejoy, in which the Class AAAA state runner-up Wildcats got off to a fast start and never looked back.
“Our kids were still asleep. They thought we could just line up and play against a team like that,” Shaw said. “In a tournament like this, if we don’t bring it — every play, all day — then we’re digging ourselves out of a hole, and we made too many mistakes.”
Late dramatics in back-to-back games helped Cherokee get into a rhythm as the morning wore on.
Against Columbia, junior cornerback Blace Brown raked away a would-be completion inside the 5-yard line to force a late-game turnover on downs and cut the deficit to one. On the next possession, quarterback Spencer Ashley found senior wideout Willie Cyrus in the end zone with less than a minute left to play, and Cherokee held on for a 19-14 win.
In the next game, after trailing North Gwinnett by 10 with just over 4 minutes to play, the Warriors scored quickly on a Blake Johnston touchdown reception and forced a three-and-out on the Bulldogs’ subsequent possession. Ashley then connected with senior Armony Parker deep down the middle in the final minute to set up another late touchdown pass to Cyrus.
Later, a desperation heave by North Gwinnett beat the Cherokee defense, but it bounced harmlessly off the chest of a receiver in the end zone, securing the Warriors’ 20-16 victory.
“It really got the team going, got the energy up, and we got a little crisper after that, a little more focused,” Ashley said of the game-winning drive against North Gwinnett. “It really turned our day around.”
Cherokee left nothing in doubt in it remaining games to build some positive momentum heading into today’s tournament. Ashley hooked up with fellow sophomore Andrew Harris running wide open down the left side for a 35-yard touchdown that highlighted a 31-12 victory over Walton, last year’s Class AAAAA state runner-up.
The Warriors scored on every possession they had against the Raiders, who were led by Alabama-committed quarterback Parker McLeod.
A pair of impressive defensive plays sparked a comeback in Cherokee’s final game of the day.
After falling behind 9-0 to Jackson County, an interception by Brady Sandercock, and another critical pass breakup by Brown, stopped the Panthers short of the end zone on back-to-back possessions. Cherokee, meanwhile, got its offense going and gained separation on the way to a 31-15 win.
“He’s really starting to pick up our defensive scheme, and it’s allowing him to play a little better,” Shaw said of Brown, a returning starter from last year’s defense. “He’s making some plays the way we think he should be doing.”
After settling into pool play with a healthy dose of short passes over the middle, the Warriors found success on a pair of deep throws against Jackson County. Running back Trayvon Simmons reeled in a 36-yard touchdown pass on a wheel route, and Ashley hit Blake Johnston for 40 yards and another score as time expired.
The Warriors’ new-look spread offense lived up to its name in the passing-friendly competition setting. Ashley threw touchdowns to five different receivers Friday.
“He got a little rust off early, but he rebounded and really started turning it on,” Shaw said.