A year ago at this point, the Warriors were 1-7 and already assured of finishing with a losing record for the fifth straight season.
One year later, Cherokee (5-3, 3-2 Region 5AAAAAA) enters its game at Milton knocking at the door of its first state playoff appearance since 2008.
While a big part of the Warriors’ progress can be attributed to second-year coach Josh Shaw fully implementing his system, and the players buying into his philosophy, one can’t overlook the contributions of some talented players.
Among them is junior quarterback Spencer Ashley.
Ashley started as a sophomore and was named the Quarterback of the Year by the Cherokee Gridiron Club. As a junior, the same qualities that made him stand out as a sophomore have only been amplified.
He leads Class AAAAAA with 2,011 passing yards, having completed 157 of 249 attempts and thrown for 16 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. While Ashley’s rushing numbers don’t say much — he has 32 carries for just 8 yards — he has scored four touchdowns on the ground, mostly in short-yard situations.
Shaw said that speaks to the entire program.
“I’m not so sure that we want to throw the ball as much as we are sometimes forced to,” Shaw said. “Down 15 points last week, with a little bit of time to play, we ended up passing the ball a considerable amount, and then next thing you know, we have thrown the ball 43 times. Sometimes, you don’t realize that. (Ashley) has done a great job of getting the ball to our playmakers, and that says a lot about our program and what coach (Stephen) Jackson and our offensive staff have been able to do.”
As a passing threat, Ashley obviously hasn’t done the work alone. Senior wide receiver Blace Brown will look to break 1,000 receiving yards tonight. Through eight games, he has caught 67 passes for 982 yards and seven touchdowns.
As the team’s most experienced receiver, Brown gets the first look from Ashley on a lot of plays, which helps him rack up the yards, but Brown is far from the only option for the Cherokee quarterback.
The Warriors have four more players with more than 100 receiving yards on the season. Andrew Harris is second with 400 yards and six touchdowns on 33 receptions. He is followed by Blake Johnston (12 catches, 204 yards), Brittain Brown (20 catches, 196 yards) and Jordan Freeman (12 catches, 119 yards). Just outside the pack is Dwayne Tiller (10 catches, 82 yards).
For any successful quarterback, a balanced offense is also key. The Warriors have achieved that by spreading the ball around as well.
Johnston, a senior, has been the primary ball-carrier, collecting 619 yards and six touchdowns on 118 rushing attempts. Backing him up are sophomores Brittain Brown (73 carries, 430 yards, eight touchdowns) and Tiller (36 carries, 130 yards, two touchdowns).
“I think we average close to 30 points and over 400 yards a game,” Shaw said. “It’s nice to know, offensively, that we are putting up those kinds of numbers, and Spencer is the trigger man and he is doing a great job passing the ball and also getting the ball to the athletes on the field.
“We have two or three good running backs and three good receivers. They have all made big plays this season. Spencer has done a great job of spreading the ball around.”
Behind the deep offense, Shaw is excited to see what Cherokee can do, should it earn that 11th game.
First, however, the Warriors need to take care of a Milton team that started the season 5-0 before losing back-to-back games against Etowah and Lassiter. The Eagles (6-2, 3-2) then rebounded with a win over Walton a week ago, which made tonight’s game more relative.
“They are big and physical,” Shaw said. “Very similar to Etowah, which we saw a couple of weeks ago — big offensive line and an extremely good running back.”
After Milton, the Warriors end the regular season at Wheeler next week.
“It’s Week 9 in 6A football. Everybody is dinged-up a bit at this time of year,” Shaw said. “We are just trying to get as much mental stuff done in practice as we can without beating up the kids any more than they already are.”