BY NATHAN BERG
The next time you attend a Cherokee Bluff basketball game, you can expect a packed house and a warm welcome.
Before every home contest — usually around halftime of the girls game happening earlier in the evening — the Bears players break into groups and walk up and down the bleachers on the home side of the gym, shaking hands with each and every spectator and exchanging a few words of thanks.
“In this day and age, there’s a lot of people that don’t appreciate what they have,” Cherokee Bluff coach Benjie Wood said. “We want to make sure that our program is a program that does appreciate all the blessings we have. We want to make sure we share that with the people who help.”
It’s a tradition that Wood’s teams participated in on occasion during his time at Gainesville, but never before has it become so consistent a habit. Wood brought the idea to his players prior to their preseason scrimmage against Gainesville, and it was received well.
After an offseason full of volunteer help and sponsorship from many of the fans in attendance, the Bears were excited to have an outlet to express their gratitude.
“It’s awesome,” senior guard Griffin Neville said. “It’s a special fan base. I don’t think any other school has it like we do.”
Though Cherokee Bluff has been open for less than two full school years, its students and surrounding community have rallied around its sports teams.
From football and basketball to track and field and cross country, the Bears have built up a support system that has carried the school’s athletic department to gradually increasing success. The basketball team’s pregame handshakes are meant to let the community know its efforts are not going unnoticed.
“Try to make the school one big family,” said senior guard Davon Ruffins of the goal behind the tradition. “Try to get it through everybody’s head that this is more than just basketball.”
And so far, the crowds have responded.
In brief action over last season and the first couple games of this one, home court advantage has meant something at Cherokee Bluff.
“The people that are coming in are scared when they’re shooting their free throws,” Ruffins said. “They’re loud every time. They’re always there for us.”
“They keep our energy up,” added Neville. “They make the place real loud. We always have a great student section. They make the difference in a lot of games.”
As the players walk the bleachers mere minutes before they take the court, many wear white, long sleeved shirts decorated with a Cherokee Bluff logo and the word “Family.”
For the Bears, that family extends beyond just the home locker room — a truth that fans are reminded of every game night.
“That’s the great part about it, people really want to be with each other,” Wood said. “Across sports, we really support each other, and the community here really wants to be a part of it. It’s a like a big family. It’s been a lot of fun.”