By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
CENTRE – The high school football season the Cherokee County Warriors had in 2022 was what head coach Jacob Kelley had envisioned four years ago.
The Warriors came close to reaching the pinnacle of Class 4A football, finishing as state runner-up to Andalusia in Auburn to cap a 12-3 season earlier this month.
It was validation for all the changes Kelley has implemented since he come on board in Centre in 2019.
“It was definitely that big step this year,” Kelley said. “Once we got in the playoffs and started playing, I felt like we definitely got better every week. We were tested in the West Morgan game, which made us better. We faced a tough challenge in Randolph because of what they did offensively throwing it all over the yard, which made us better. We kind of put it all together that second game against Oneonta. We just didn’t make enough plays and do our job enough to win the state title game, but I’m excited about what the foundation has been the past couple of years leading up to this one, knowing now the plan works, what we’re doing works.
“Our scheme works. Our weight room works. Everything is in place. Now we’re returning guys who have proven it.”
For guiding the Warriors to their first state title game appearance since 2009, Kelley has been chosen as the 2022 All-Cherokee County Football Coach of the Year.
“I almost have to pinch myself sometimes,” Kelley said. “When I first got here, after evaluating things after a couple of months, you build a vision of the things I said I wanted to do when I first took the job. If you don’t have long-term goals, a lot of times you can lose sight of the things that you envision to build. Where we’re at in every year so far, I think we’ve gotten better and better. I always felt like we were right on the doorstep of being a so-called elite team in 4A and in the region hunt every single year, even the first year. We had some talent, but team-wise we weren’t where we needed to be. I thought we were way better in year two. Losing Slade (Alexander) definitely hurt, but last year, we were right there as well.”
A big reason for the Warriors’ 2022 success came from a pair of underclassmen: junior running back/linebacker Jacob Cornejo and sophomore defensive lineman Tae Diamond.
Cornejo ran for a school record 2,580 yards on 287 carries with 33 touchdowns. Diamond delivered 98 tackles, including 27 for loss, with 20 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two passes batted down.
Cornejo and Diamond were chosen as the All-Cherokee County Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year respectively.
Both players bought into Kelley’s vision that successful seasons begin during the offseason in the weight room.
“I’ve never experienced a weight room like I have with him,” Cornejo said. “He’s in there pushing us every day. He’s made me stronger. He’s made me faster. He’s made me so much better at what I could do.
“He’s really believed in me a lot. He’s put his faith in me, and I don’t think I’ve let him down yet.”
“Coach was telling me ‘If you want to start as a freshman, you’ve got to get stronger in the weight room.’ I just put my mind to it,” Diamond said. “I just got stronger every day. I got stronger as a freshman and started. Coach put the work there for me. I did it and now I’ve gotten stronger.”
There’s no denying the Warriors have come light years under Kelley’s leadership, and they show no sign of a letdown anytime soon.
“I think (last season) reiterates that in January, until we get the pads on, you know what you’ve got to do,” Kelley said. “When we go in that weight room, if you let up one bit, you’re leaving yourself open to get caught by other programs. You’ve always been the one trying to catch somebody else. Now you’re out in front, and it’s your job to separate yourself as far as making sure you’re farther in front. Now is definitely not the time to back off. I don’t think any of our guys are satisfied or just good with competing.
“We’ve got a lot coming back. All that being said, I think they’re just as hungry as ever. Obviously this offseason will determine what their hunger level is (for next season).”
In all, the Warriors had 18 players selected to the All-Cherokee County Team. Joining Cornejo, Diamond and Kelley from Cherokee County High School are Cade Hopper, Jack Amos, Malachi Horton, Haden Wheeler, Demarius Diamond, Alex Johnson, Jeb Crane, Ben Frampton, Will Frampton, Tristan Brown, Alex Loyd, Landon Ransum, Dalton Chestnut, Connor Wilson, Zach Gaylor and Yestin Mejia.
Warrior honorable mention players are Antonio Hernandez, Cooper Martin, Jaden Wilson and Caleb Harbour.
Spring Garden (10-2) had 10 selections in John Welsh, Braxton Haney, Reece Winstead, Chapel Pope, Connor Bates, Cam Welsh, Tanner Ruark, Jacob Dempsey, Jacob Welsh and Mathias Williams.
Sand Rock (4-6) and Gaylesville (3-6) both had seven selections. Chosen from Sand Rock is Brian Giles, Ace Ashley, Bradley Jackson, Jace Turner, Trace Haygood, Gatlin Cox and Hugh Moore. Honorable mention Wildcats are Lucas McDaniel, Everett DeBoard and Morgan Tucker.
Chosen from Gaylesville is Briley Mitchell, Seth Lee, Tanner Eads, David Glenn, Bailey Glassco, Keylon Higgins and Kyler Bradley. Honorable mention Trojans are Braden Sharp, Hunter Allmond, Eli Bryson, Collin Hendon and Karson Ray.
Cedar Bluff (4-7) had seven selections in Kade Browning, Dylan Kinard, Hunter Jenkins, Bucky Leek, Eli McFry, Austin Richardson and Hagen Stallings. Tiger honorable mention players are Aden Green, Jacob Chambers and Hunter Stallings.