By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
CENTRE – Before Friday night’s Class 4A high school football state semifinal battle against Oneonta, Cherokee County football coach Jacob Kelley told the Warriors he didn’t care about the circumstances surrounding the game.
All he wanted was to beat the Redskins because of what happened in their first meeting of the season back on Sept. 9. The Warriors let an 11-point lead at halftime slip away in the fourth quarter.
“The way that game ended up there, it really really left a bad taste in our mouths,” Kelley said. “Rarely do you get a chance to run it back with one of your losses. We were kind hoping it would turn out this way (meeting again in the playoffs). Nothing against them. It’s just we wanted to right that wrong that night.”
And right that wrong the Warriors did, and as Kelley said, it couldn’t be sweeter.
Behind a 310-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance from junior running back Jacob Cornejo, Cherokee County steamrolled Oneonta 42-21 to clinch the school’s first state championship appearance since 2009.
The Warriors (12-2) will take on Andalusia (13-1) in the Super 7 at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium on Friday morning at 11 a.m. Andalusia defeated Catholic-Montgomery 29-26 in other state semifinal action on Friday.
“I’m so proud to be the head coach of Cherokee County,” Kelley continued. “This is a special place. We’ve done a ton in four years. To see it grow from where it was to where it is now, it’s like a culmination tonight. There’s going to be some good celebration here in Centre.”
Speaking of special, Cornejo has been that all season long for the Warriors. With his rushing performance Friday night, he broke the school’s single-season rushing mark set by Michael Johnson back in 1989. Johnson ran for 2,300 yards that season. Cornejo now has 2,491 yards on 269 carries with 32 touchdowns this season.
Rushing accolades aside, Cornejo was more excited about the opportunity to play for a title next week in Auburn.
“It feels like it’s not real but it is. I’m glad to have our team to go,” Cornejo said. “It’s my first year here, so what can I say? Thank you CC (Cherokee County).”
The other half of the Warrior running game, senior Jack Amos, got Cherokee County on the board first on Friday night. Amos’s 10-yard touchdown was set up by a Dalton Chestnut fumble recovery. Will Frampton’s extra point bounced off the right upright and in to provide the Warriors a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Oneonta appeared as if it would answer the Warrior score by driving down inside the 1-yard line, but Cherokee County’s stiffened to force a 21-yard field goal by Payton Kritner. Kritner’s kick sailed wide left.
Cornejo scored his first touchdown of the night later in the second quarter on a 41-yard run. Frampton’s PAT extended the Warrior lead to 14-0 with 3:29 remaining in the first half.
Once again, Oneonta drove inside the Warrior red zone, and once again, the Redskins came up empty handed.
On a fourth-and-goal at the Warrior 13, Redskin quarterback Landon Abernathy dropped back to pass. He had a receiver in the corner of the end zone, but Amos intercepted the pass. He ran up the Oneonta sideline, cut back to the middle of the field around the Redskin 40 and dashed into the end zone, but the Warriors were penalized for a hold on the play. The penalty backed the ball all the way back to the 44-yard line with 6.4 seconds remaining in the half.
Cherokee County senior quarterback Cade Hopper took a knee, and the Warriors headed to the locker room with a 14-0 advantage.
“I wish it would’ve counted,” Amos said. “I seen the quarterback drop back and right when I read the guard stand up, that’s when I knew it was a pass. I went over to the single receiver and grabbed it. I took it and got to the opposite 40. They started chasing me down a little bit, so I cut it back up and it was free from there. It was an easy touchdown, but they called holding. It switched the momentum. It helped us out a lot.”
That momentum carried over into the third quarter.
The Warriors received the second-half kickoff, and Amos punched it in again. This time, he ran in from 15 yards to cap an 8-play, 72-yard drive, and it put Cherokee County in front 21-0.
Oneonta finally found the end zone on its ensuing drive on a Fluff Bothwell 49-yard touchdown run. The point after made it a 21-7 game with 5:39 left in the third quarter, but the Warriors responded with Cornejo’s 7-yard score on their following drive to push their lead out to 28-7 after three quarters.
Amos added a 10-yard score early in the fourth to extend the Warrior lead to 35-7, but one play after that touchdown, the Redskins’ Malikih Montgomery motored 80 yards to bring the score to 35-14.
Two plays following a 48-yard Cornejo run on the Warriors’ next drive, Hopper ran in for a 1-yard score with 8:31 remaining in the game.
Abernathy connected with Josiah Coover on a 16-yard touchdown pass on Oneonta’s next drive for the final.
Bothwell, who left the game late in the third quarter with what was believed to have been a broken hand, led the Redskins with 191 yards on 24 carries with a touchdown. Montgomery had carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. Abernathy completed 8-of-14 pass attempts for 82 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Amos finished with 52 yards on seven carries with three scores. Hopper completed 3-of-5 passes for 96 yards.
“It’s a dream come true,” Hopper said. “This is one thing I wanted to do when I was a freshman. I’m so thankful and give all the glory to God for this opportunity. It was a great game. Oneonta is a great team. We just happened to pull it out.
The Warriors also got a standout performance from sophomore defender Tae Diamond. Diamond was constantly creating havoc in the Redskin backfield.
“The game plan was we had to go in and be physical. We can’t let big plays happen,” Diamond said. “We’ve got to stop the big plays and execute on defense and let the offense do the work. We were physical at practice all week. We came out physical and dominated the game.”
“This game is huge for the community and it’s huge for these kids,” Kelley said. “I’m just so happy we finished what we said – all the preseason goals, we went through adversity, and now we’re sitting right here about to go to Game 15 next week. It’s almost surreal.”