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Warriors end losing streak against top-ranked Piedmont, 21-14

Cherokee County’s Jack Amos, left, takes a direct snap on a touchdown run against Piedmont on Friday. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

CENTRE – Cherokee County High School quarterback Cade Hopper had a game to forget at Piedmont a year ago. He threw three costly interceptions in the Warriors’ 27-point loss.

Warrior coach Jacob Kelley said Hopper took that loss hard. From that point, he committed himself to improving his game. On Friday night at Warrior Stadium, the senior signal caller redeemed himself.

Hopper was pretty much pinpoint on his passes Friday night against the defending Class 3A state champions. He connected on his first six passes and finished 14-of-17 for the game for 176 yards, including the game-winning 50-yard touchdown to senior receiver Malachi Horton with 1:16 remaining, to lift the Warriors to a 21-14 upset victory.

The win put a halt to Piedmont’s 10-game unbeaten streak over the Warriors. The last time the Warriors (2-0) defeated their Highway 9 rivals was back in 2009, when both teams went on to win their respective class state championships. The win also evened the series at 38-38-3.

“There was like two minutes left on the clock, and I’m just trying to look for guys open,” Hopper said. “I’m not trying to force it downfield, force a pick or anything. I just saw Malachi make a little move. He was sitting in the middle of coverage. The linebacker got off of him a little bit and I hit him. The rest, he just made a play. He’s a great ball player, and he took it to the house.”

“How about Cade Hopper coming in and just slipping daggers in?,” Kelley said. “This game last year, that kid threw three interceptions. He took it hard. He improved and came out here tonight, just did his job and drove us all the way down the field. He made the plays we needed him to make in the passing game to mix with the run.”

Both Hopper and Kelley said they installed the game-winning touchdown play on Thursday.

“We’ve always had that play, but Malachi would go the other way,” Hopper said. “We saw some things on film. We told him to come inside.”

But Hopper knew there was still time on the clock for his senior counterpart, Jack Hayes, to make a comeback for the Bulldogs (0-1). It wasn’t until sophomore defensive back Tristan Brown’s interception of Hayes near midfield with 51.4 seconds to go that the Warriors could celebrate.

“We scored, and then I looked up and there was 1:16 to go. I was like ‘Dang, Jack Hayes is over there. He’s going to try and make something happen,’” Hopper said. “Tristan Brown has worked his tail off, and he just made a heck of a play. I’m so proud of that kid.”

Three Hopper kneel downs and the streak was finally over.

“We had a great week of practice. That’s what really matters,” Hopper said. “We were all locked in. In the past, I think we’ve kind of been intimidated. They’re a great ball team. Jack Hayes is a great quarterback. They have a legendary head coach (Steve Smith). We knew what we had to do. We weren’t scared. We didn’t back down. At practice we were locked in. That’s the key. We were locked in. We were ready to go. We just came out and executed.”

Horton said the Warrior win was “a long time coming.”

“When (Brown) made that interception, my heart just dropped,” said Horton, who caught five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. “It’s my senior year. I had one more chance at beating Piedmont. They’re always a powerhouse. We came out and executed and did what we had to do, and we beat Piedmont. It just feels good. Thirteen years is too long, you know? I’m just glad to be in a good position to put my team in a winning situation.

“We knew it was going to be a dogfight all game, the full 48 minutes. We started off kind of slow, but as the game progressed, we started getting more physical, started wanting it more than them. We started executing our plays. Being gritty led us to victory.”

As Horton said, the Warriors started off slow. Piedmont held a 6-0 lead at the end of the first quarter on Hayes’ 1-yard touchdown run. The Bulldogs appeared as if they may add to their lead midway through the second quarter, but a Sloan Smith 50-yard field goal attempt was no good.

Following the missed field goal, the Warriors began getting in gear. They marched 80 yards in 11 plays, capped off by a 1-yard Jack Amos run from what Kelley calls the Warriors’ heavy package. Will Frampton’s extra point gave the Warriors a 7-6 lead at halftime.

“We used that heavy set against Model (last week),” Kelley said. “It was a downpour, lakes on both sides. It was real sloppy, but we kind of found our heavy set, and kind of crazy enough, Jack Amos fit into that heavy set. It’s kind of an oxymoron because Jack is our smallest kid (5-foot-5), but at the end of the day, he’s probably the one with the biggest heart in there.”

Amos, who had five carries for 38 yards, scored another touchdown early in the fourth quarter on a 3-yard run.

“We practiced it this week,” Amos said. “We put it in more, all the blocking schemes, how they run their defense, how to block it. The O-line is going to log the outside backer and we’re going to take it outside, and that’s what happened on that one play (in the fourth quarter).

Amos lost the ball in the end zone, but an official ruled he crossed the plain before it was lodged loose.

“I for sure crossed the line,” Amos said. “I saw it and I was trying to put my hand down. He hit it out, but the ref saw me cross the line and that’s when he put his hands up.”

Prior to Amos’s game-tying touchdown, the Bulldogs had regained the lead and momentum on a Jacob Cornejo fumble that was stripped and recovered by Bulldog senior linebacker Jake Austin.

Austin returned the fumble 62 yards down the Warrior sideline for a touchdown. Rollie Pinto ran in for the ensuing 2-point conversion to give the Bulldogs a 14-7 advantage with just under five minutes remaining in the third quarter.

“It was a great play on his part stripping it and running it back,” Piedmont coach Steve Smith said. “We had a lot of momentum right there, but we needed to go out there and get a stop after that. We had them backed up inside their own 5, and they wound up converting that, taking it on down the field and scoring on that drive. That was huge there.”

After the Warriors tied the game at 14 on Amos’s second touchdown, Hayes drove Piedmont methodically down the field to the Warrior 17. However, the drive began to stall, bringing up a fourth-and-1 situation.

Hayes hit senior receiver Max Hanson on a busted play in the end zone, but the Bulldogs had an ineligible man downfield to nullify the score.

The penalty backed the Bulldogs into a fourth-and-6 situation at the 22. Coach Smith called on Sloan Smith for a 38-yard field goal, but the knuckleball kick was no good with 2:40 to go in the game.

“We just failed to finish it off,” Coach Smith said of the drive. “We’ve got to finish it off right there on a fourth-and-1. We had kind of a busted play there, then had the penalty for an ineligible down field. It’s just one of those things.”

That set the stage for the Hopper-to-Horton game-winning score.

Hayes was 5-of-15 for 18 yards and an interception for Piedmont. He also ran for 95 yards on 18 carries. Cornejo added 72 yards on 11 carries for the Warriors.

“This is a big win for this team. This is a big win for this community,” Kelley said. “Hats off to the guys for coming out and showing us what they’re made of.”

“We didn’t play well enough to win tonight, and Cherokee County played with a lot of intensity, a lot of passion. They made the plays they needed to make to win. Give them credit for that,” Coach Smith said. “We’ve got a long way to go to be the team that we want to be. I thought they come out and out-did us tonight. I thought they played well enough to win and we didn’t.”

Piedmont hosts Sylvania on Friday while Cherokee County entertains Good Hope.

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