But the road hasn’t been a smooth one.
In fact, the team hit a major bump following its 59-57 victory over Harrison last week. Ja’Davin Keith, who led the team in scoring and rebounding last season, was diagnosed with a season-ending — and, potentially, career-threatening — medical condition.
Keith, a guard, had played a significant role in the Warriors’ first four games. Cherokee coach Roger Kvam said the team would not have been able to beat Harrison had it not been for Keith.
Keith played the first two games of the season — wins against Sequoyah and Etowah — without incident, but in a game against South Forsyth, he began experiencing chest pain. Keith was pulled from that game, but he returned after trainers cleared him.
The following day against Harrison, the same thing happened. Once again, Keith was pulled from the court. Trainers cleared Keith to return once more, he went back in the game and went on to finish with 18 points.
“The trainers thought he was good to go,” Kvam said. “We wouldn’t have won that game against Harrison without him.”
The final straw came the following day during practice leading up to Cherokee’s game against Woodstock.
Keith once more felt chest pain, and Kvam told him to see a doctor. After undergoing a chest X-ray, he was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs.
Keith was put on a blood thinner and told to avoid contact sports — including basketball.
“We only discovered it because he was having trouble breathing in the South Forsyth tournament,” Kvam said.
The loss of Keith, who was named to the all-county and all-Region 5AAAAAA first teams as a junior, is a significant setback for the Warriors.
“We had to play Woodstock and Lassiter without him,” Kvam said. “We are making adjustments to how we play on the fly. We weren’t expecting to lose him.”
Kvam said the only good thing about Keith’s season coming to a close when it did was that he was able to score his 1,000th career point in his final game.
Most of all, though, it didn’t end anymore tragically than it did. Often, such ailments can result in death.
One of Cherokee’s captains, Keith will still be a part of the team. He will attend practices and games, but in a role more akin to coaching.
“He will be on the bench cheering for the guys,” Kvam said. “That’s one of the things about him. He has always been about the team winning. He is very competitive. It’s going to be hard for him because he is going to feel fine. He doesn’t have a torn ACL or anything. He is going to feel like he can get out there, but for the next six months, he is on medication and can’t do anything.”
Without Keith, Cherokee has looked to some different players to step up. Jeremiah Gill filled the void with 27 points and 14 rebounds against Lassiter. Other players, such as Zach Kvam and Javon Morris, are also doing more. Both scored in double digits against Lassiter.
“We got increased production out of all of them,” Roger Kvam said.
The Warriors have also gotten some help from unexpected places.
Freshman Jack Carroll earned his first start and impressed Kvam. Carroll didn’t start practicing with the team until the end of football season.
“He stepped into the starting lineup and did quite well,” Kvam said. “We are very impressed with how tough he is, how poised he is. I would say that he is about a 5-10 guard, so he doesn’t bring us any size, but he is a smart player. He has been a big surprise for us.”
The Warriors are familiar with overcoming challenges. Last season, without a player taller than 6-foot-1, they found a way to win against much taller opponents.
“We are still small, but we are scrappy,” Kvam said. “Lassiter had some size, but we did a good job making up for our lack of size by being good defensively and sharing the ball on offense. We play together. We do a lot of things that help us compensate for the lack of size.”
Kvam said other players like Gideon Ojo, Christian Vines, C.J. Karl and Gary Dubial also are making impacts off the bench.
“We just have to keep playing as a team,” Kvam said.
The Warriors will take the court at Creekview (4-3) on Saturday night. The Grizzlies started the season 0-3, but have won four straight games, including two in Region 7AAAAA play.