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After a year's worth of work, Cherokee Bluff athletic department finally coming together
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Benjie Wood, head coach of Cherokee Bluff's boys basketball team, talks with his team before a scrimmage against East Jackson High School in Flowery Branch, on Friday, June 1, 2018, during summer training. - photo by David Barnes

Upon receiving the Cherokee Bluff High football team’s uniform pants last Tuesday, Kenny Hill felt a wave of gratification rush over him.

It was the same sensation the athletic director of the new South Hall school experienced when he watched the Bears’ spring football scrimmage and first saw coaches post rosters for the upcoming year.

After almost a year’s worth of work, Cherokee Bluff’s athletic department is finally starting to come together bit by bit.

“It’s cool when you see actual stuff because you know the ideas are a step beyond just being ideas,” Hill said. “You’re closer to making everything a reality. What reality looks like at this point, I’m not really even sure. But I’ll be happy with whatever it is.”

Hill and the rest of the Bears community will find that out when the school opens and varsity sports begin in August. Though there is still work to be done before that point — like making alterations to venues and collecting extra equipment — Cherokee Bluff’s administration has done the bulk of what’s required to build an athletic program from scratch.

It started early last August with principal Wes McGee’s hiring of Hill as athletic director, a title he held alongside his post as assistant principal of Flowery Branch High.

On top of his duties at Flowery Branch, the primary task of his new role was assembling a coaching staff for the upcoming school year. Once a coach himself, Hill held off hiring staff members from other schools until their respective seasons ended.

“I didn’t want to interfere with what the kids or coaches had going on at the schools where they were,” Hill said. “Initially that was the thought, but as it progressed, I saw the need to try to get people in place as soon as possible. Where that worked, that’s what we did.”

He managed to walk that tightrope while making a string of splashy hires, most notably plucking football coach Tommy Jones from Dacula and landing Gainesville’s baseball/boys basketball duo of Jeremy Kemp and Benjie Wood.

But even after Hill got the coaches he wanted, delivering directives to them presented a new challenge.

“Everybody was in different spots. Our football coach is from one place, then our basketball coach is from another,” Hill said. “Not being able to have everybody in one place, you can’t talk about things all at once or address issues all out once.”

Once coaches were in place and up to speed with Cherokee Bluff’s vision, they began meeting with prospective parents and players from area middle schools and high schools while drumming up interest on social media for their specific programs.

Coaches have also been responsible for fundraising, which Hill hopes will result in stadium signage and ads in seasonal media guides. He envisions a year-long ad campaign encompassing all Bears sports, though individual teams have undertaken their own fundraising efforts.

There is, however, one aspect of program-building that falls on neither Hill nor his coaches.

Hall County Schools has supplied Cherokee Bluff with the necessary equipment for each sport. With the assistance of West Hall High’s Eric Radich, who Hill said oversaw the bidding process for materials, the Bears experienced no hitch entering spring and summer workouts.

“The county has really done a great job providing each program with the basics to start off with,” Hill said. “I don’t think we’re starting off needing anything.”

While the Bears are all set when it comes to equipment, they’re still in the process of altering their current sports venues or constructing entirely new ones.

Cherokee Bluff, which will open alongside its accompanying middle school on the current site of Flowery Branch High, is building a baseball stadium where the Falcons’ tennis courts and additional practice field used to sit.

The Bears’ tennis courts, meanwhile, are situated a short distance down Spout Springs Road from the school. Administrators also added another weight room to the campus and installed a small visitors’ locker room complete with restrooms.

Beyond that, Cherokee Bluff has made minor modifications to the existing facilities that Hill characterized as “mostly some aesthetic changes and the way some of the space is used.”

All the work has Hill eager for Aug. 18, when each of the four fall sports will be in action for the Bears. The day will begin with a cross country meet, followed by a softball game, a volleyball match and a rare Saturday night kickoff to open the football season.

But before then, Hill and company must put the finishing touches on their fledgling athletic program within the next two months.

They’re still importing materials and gear, including supplies for the new weight room. Despite currently overseeing summer workouts to ensure their teams are ready for the upcoming season, coaches have also pitched in with unloading and setting up equipment as Cherokee Bluff’s opening approaches.

Hill said “a lot of patience and perseverance” was needed to get the Bears’ athletic department off the ground, but he’s finally starting to see glimpses of what all the work was for.

“The football uniforms came in a few days ago — at least the bottoms did,” he said with a laugh. 

“We’re still waiting on the tops, but it’s just part of the process. It’s one piece at a time. There are so many moving parts that you just hope at the end of every day that you make progress. You just put your head down and keep going.”

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