The Warriors, seeded sixth after a 4-1 mark in pool play, scored twice in the final minute to top M.L. King in their first game of the double-elimination tournament, but they couldn’t recapture those late-game heroics in losses to Lovejoy and Duluth that left them just outside the tournament’s final eight teams.
“We lost a couple of heartbreakers here (Saturday) that we thought we had chances to win, and we didn’t make the plays when we had to,” Cherokee coach Josh Shaw said. “It’s great for our team to be able to come out here and compete. I think they’ve figured out how to do that.”
With time running low against M.L. King, a Class AAAAA quarterfinalist last season, Cherokee quarterback Spencer Ashley hit running back Trayvon Simmons over the middle to cut a 24-15 deficit to three points with just over 30 seconds to play. Safety Brady Sandercock then broke up a sure touchdown pass on third down of the next series to give the Warriors the ball back with 13 seconds left, setting up one final shot to the end zone.
“When we got a stop, I told our offensive staff to go get a play ready and be able to go, and they kind of drew that one up,” Shaw said. “They had a few minutes to talk about it and found a way to get us to the end zone.”
The Cherokee receivers bunched up to the right of Ashley, they all streaked toward the end zone at the snap, and senior wideout Armony Parker came down in bounds with a well-placed throw through the crowd for the game-winning touchdown with 3 seconds left on the clock.
“I told my coach to put me on the end so that I could get 1-on-1 with the corner,” Parker said. “I just told Spencer to throw it up to me once I do my move, and he threw it, and I just caught it.”
Senior linebacker Tally Redmond leaped for an interception in the end zone on the Lions’ final play to secure the 31-24 win.
After freshman Brittain Brown’s interception on the first play from scrimmage against Lovejoy in the next round, Cherokee looked primed to avenge its only loss from Friday’s pool play. But the Wildcats took the lead with 3 minutes to go and tightened up on defense, as two false start penalties set the Warriors back and a deep pass from Ashley was picked off at the goal line to cap off a 19-13 Lovejoy victory.
“Sometimes, in pressure situations, it’s easy to make a mental error like that,” Shaw said of the late penalties. “Those are the things we have to learn and grow from.”
In a high-scoring losers’ bracket matchup with Duluth, Cherokee’s rally from a two-possession deficit appeared to have fallen short when the game-tying 2-point conversion attempt sailed high of receiver Willie Cyrus and fell incomplete. But junior linebacker Brandon Hrouda gave the Warriors life on the next play, stepping in front of a short pass across the middle for an interception that pushed Cherokee ahead by a single point with 27 seconds to go.
“I just saw his eyes go to the receiver and broke up, tipped it and caught it,” Hrouda said. “I thought that was game.”
The Warriors, however, still needed to run out the clock, a less than enviable task under the unorthodox rules of 7-on-7. Hunter Wingfield dropped a third-down pass across the middle, and Duluth advanced on the strength of the two points earned for forcing a turnover on downs, winning 28-27.
Shaw believes the weekend’s fortuitous close calls, and the frustrating missed opportunities, will position his team well for the upcoming season — his first at the Warriors’ helm.
“I tried to tell these guys that that’s what it’s going to take to put us in that upper echelon of teams — to be able to play at this tournament,” he said. “These games are won and lost by a couple of plays here or there.”