Tonight’s Region 5AAAAAA opener between Cherokee and Lassiter at Frank Fillmann Stadium could be a stepping stone for both programs.
Cherokee (2-1) is showing signs of turning the corner following a 1-9 season in 2012, and its offense seems to be clicking after winning its first three games against their non-region opponents.
In the second year of coach Josh Shaw’s tenure, and the second year since the program’s shift from its longstanding run-first mentality to a more balanced attack, Cherokee’s players look to be past the transition process.
The Warriors opened the season with convincing wins over county rivals Creekview and Sequoyah before suffering their first setback by giving up big plays that led to a 34-27 loss to North Forsyth.
Though quarterback Spencer Ashley is 54-for-84 for a county-best 647 yards through the air, and Blace Brown has a county-best 353 receiving yards, the Warriors haven’t totally abandoned the run, with top rushers Blake Johnston (321 yards) and Brittain Brown (205) having run for a combined 10 touchdowns.
“We’re an improved team over last year,” Shaw said. “We have a good running game this year, and explosive receivers. The benefits of having a good running game helps us set up the play action.”
Lassiter (1-2), a postseason regular over the last five years, is less experienced at the quarterback and receiver positions than previous seasons and is still trying to jell. The Trojans are still getting acclimated to new quarterback Will Anderson, who started to get his rhythm in the second half of last week’s 35-20 loss to Kell, when he nearly rallied the team from a 28-10 second-half deficit.
Prior to that rally, Lassiter’s receivers had a few dropped passes.
“We have to play better around him, but he’s getting better,” Lassiter coach Jep Irwin said. “We’re much better now than we were in Game 1 (in a 42-28 loss to McEachern). We’re running the ball more effectively.”
Tonight’s game is a battle that will likely come down to which offense can finish.
Cherokee showed balance in its first three games, something it lacked during Shaw’s first year as coach in 2012. The Warriors have already piled on 114 points — well on the pace to pass their 138-point total from all of last season.
Going up against Lassiter’s defense could be a challenge for the Warriors.
The Trojans return most of their top defensive players from last year’s region championship team. Defensive lineman Corey John already has 5½ sacks to go with his 13 tackles, while linebacker Benedict Louis heads the tackle list with 21½. Arkansas-bound safety Chris Murphy is running the secondary.
“Defensively, they’re better than last year,” Shaw said. “A lot of their kids are returning from last season and seem to be more physical and disruptive.”
Lassiter has been more efficient rushing the ball this season, but it will miss Mason Waters for roughly two weeks with an ankle sprain, Irwin said. With Waters out, Lane Jackman will carry the bulk of the load.