By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
TUSCALOOSA – For 2 ½ quarters on Friday in the Class 4A state football championship game at Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Cherokee Warriors stood toe to toe with top-ranked Montgomery Catholic.
Trailing just 7-0 early in the third quarter, the Warriors caught a break on a turnover near midfield. They marched down to the Knight 5-yard line, but went backwards from there.
Following a penalty that backed Cherokee County up to the 10, Montgomery Catholic’s defense put pressure on senior running back Jacob Cornejo to pass. The ball fell incomplete to intended target Ben Moseley to turn the ball over on downs.
The Knights had regained momentum, and they kept it the rest of the game in a 35-0 victory for their first state title in school history to cap a 15-0 season.
It was also Montgomery Catholic’s ninth shutout of the season.
“It’s tough to end this way and have this taste in your mouth, but we’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Warrior head coach Jacob Kelley said. “We threw the kitchen sink at them as far as some plays here and there, but it seemed like every one of them we either got a penalty or something happened. Sometimes that’s how it is.”
As Kelley alluded, the Warriors committed 10 penalties for 49 yards, aiding a lights-out Knight defense. The unit held No. 4 Cherokee County to just 180 total yards, but it was senior quarterback and Troy commitment Caleb McCreary who earned the game’s Most Valuable Player.
McCreary ran for 197 yards on 22 carries and scored three touchdowns. He also completed 9-of-14 pass attempts for 60 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s a collective win,” Catholic coach Kirk Johnson said. “People talk about our defense and how little points we give up. Man, bump that. We have to play complimentary football, and we did that.”
The Knights broke a scoreless tie on McCreary’s 3-yard touchdown pass to JJ Williams with 38 seconds to go in the first half. Joseph Reeves’ extra point gave Catholic a 7-0 lead heading into halftime. The touchdown capped a 6-play, 30-yard drive.
Cherokee County took momentum early in the third quarter when Tae Diamond stripped the ball from Josh Griffin, which was recovered by Caleb Harbour near midfield. The Warriors drove the ball down to the Knight 5-yard line – their deepest penetration of the day – and were faced with a fourth-and-2. However, a false start penalty backed the ball up to the 10.
Cornejo’s pass to Moseley fell incomplete, turning the ball over on downs.
“I really felt like in the third we got a little momentum there,” Kelley said. “We got down there ready to score, but we it just seemed like every time we got in a situation to convert we made a penalty and hurt ourselves.”
The Warrior defense came up big again by forcing the Knights into a punting situation on their ensuing drive, but an encroachment penalty kept the drive alive.
Eight plays later, McCreary scored on a 5-yard run to put the Knights out in front 14-0 at the end of the third quarter.
Following a Warrior punt early in the fourth quarter, McCreary put the game out of reach on a 66-yard touchdown run to make the score 21-0 with 8:32 to go.
“You’re not going to be a championship football team if you help them out,” Kelley said. “We did that a little bit, especially in the fourth quarter.”
Griffin and McCreary scored on runs of 19 and 29 yards respectively later in the quarter for the final. Griffin’s final touchdown was set up by a Cornejo fumble recovered by Zay Rudolph.
Griffin finished with 82 yards on 20 carries with a touchdown.
In his final game as a Warrior, Cornejo led Cherokee County with 102 yards on 26 carries. He finished the season with 2,892 yards on 335 carries with 36 touchdowns. Diamond delivered 80 yards on 15 totes.
In his Warrior two-year career, Cornejo set a school record with 5,472 yards and 69 touchdowns.
Cornejo gave credit for those numbers to his teammates.
“These are my dudes. I’ve been playing with them forever,” he said. “I’m glad I got to be a part of it. They really helped me out. They really give me the motivation to do what I do.”
“What he’s done in two years, to take the title of the career rushing record for the school with some of the people who have played in Cherokee County, I’m pretty sure that’s a mike drop in itself,” Kelley said. “Three thousand (yards), that’s unheard of. He’s a sponge. He’s unselfish. He doesn’t care anything about him getting credit for anything at all. He’s the first one to pick his teammates up, give teammates credit. That’s what makes him special. That’s what I’m going to miss.”
The loss was the Warriors’ second straight in the 4A state title game. In the past two seasons, Cherokee County has posted a combined 25-5 record. The Warriors finished this season at 13-2, Kelley’s fifth season in black and gold.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about,” Kelley said, fighting back tears. “Me not being from Alabama, being from Georgia, it was kind of scary to move states after 10 years. It was just one of those things where I think I was led to a place. I can’t explain it. I think I was led here for a reason. You get over there and find out how much of a football town you’re in. After ‘09, they’ve had a couple of good years, but it was a sleeping giant, a somewhat dead program. There’s life now. It’s not because of anything I’ve done. It’s because they players come and believe and go to work.
“It’s tough because of where we’re sitting now, but I can’t express to the guys in the locker room, the coaches and the community how proud I am of them. Losing the last one is never fun, never good, but being the last one was game 15, I guess you could have somewhat of a moral victory, maybe in January. Just not now.”