Wheeler (6-4, 3-4 Region 5AAAAAA) needed several things to happen to gain a spot in the playoffs. It needed to win its game and for Woodstock and Etowah to lose theirs.
After everything fell in the Wildcats’ favor, mini-games among the three teams were a possibility, but the athletic directors of the region voted against playing mini-games.
Instead, Wheeler will be the region’s No. 4 seed, thanks to its .500 winning percentage (4-4) — against Class AAAAAA teams. Woodstock was .333 (3-6) and Etowah .444 (4-5).
“I think, in GHSA football, you got to get some breaks to get things to go your way — and get a little lucky — but I also think you have to work hard and create your own breaks, and we have done both this year,” said Wheeler coach Mike Collins, a Cherokee graduate. “We’re excited to be in.”
Collins was also happy to not have to worry about the mini-games.
“Very happy,” he said. “I am hoping that is something that everyone decides to get rid of in GHSA. I don’t like the mini-games at all.”
Wheeler, in postseason play for the first time since 2006, will have a big challenge next week, though — last year’s Class AAAAA state champion, Grayson, and its nationally regarded defensive end, Robert Nkemdiche.
With no playoff berth at stake for Cherokee (1-9, 0-7), the Warriors looked to improve upon last year’s win total and send its seniors out with a win. Playing what Cherokee coach Josh Shaw called “the best our team played all year long,” the Warriors played all-out but ended the season with a loss.
“We are going to hold our heads high and build on this for next season,” Shaw said.
Two late opportunities by Cherokee fell short in the fourth quarter.
The Warriors drove into Wildcats territory with less than 3 minutes remaining, and after successfully kicking field goals of 31 and 26 yards earlier, a field goal try looked to be at least a possibility.
But on third-and-inches at the 24, a Cherokee fumble was recovered by the Wildcats.
The Warriors’ defense held Wheeler on the next possession to force the Wildcats to punt with 45 seconds remaining.
The punt looked to be partially blocked, the ball rolled about 11 yards to the Wildcats’ 29, and the Warriors thought they had another chance.
But as the Wildcats’ punter laid on the ground, so did a penalty flag.
A roughing-the-kicker penalty was called on the Warriors, and despite the Cherokee coaches’ argument, the officials marked off the penalty and to give the Wildcats a first down.
Wheeler kneeled down on the next play to end the game.
“I thought that we tipped the ball,” said Shaw, who said he wasn’t given an explanation regarding the penalty. “But I will never put a game on the officials.”
Cherokee quarterback Spencer Ashley led the Warriors with 241 yards passing. Wheeler quarterback Elijah Staley finished with 183 yards passing.