Cherokee Bluff can put a cap on any potential for a further-drawn-out battle for the Region 7-3A championship Friday.
If the ninth-ranked Bears (8-0, 4-0 Region 7-3A) beat North Hall (5-3, 4-0), the third-year program can lock up its first region championship before ever playing in a postseason game.
However, Bears coach Tommy Jones knows it’s not time to celebrate anything quite yet, despite already having a postseason berth locked down with only two regular-season games left. Cherokee Bluff can still go into the Class 3A state tournament with anything from the No. 1-4 seed.
That’s all the motivation to keep battling for the Bears, knowing the home stretch is the most cumbersome part of the schedule in 2020.
“We felt coming into the season that we could be improved, but really didn’t know how much or how everything would play out,” Jones said. “I think all the uncertainly, with the coronavirus, has forced our program to make the most of every practice, every week and really take everything one day at a time.”
This week, all Jones is concerned about is preparing for facing the Trojans in Flowery Branch. North Hall has made the postseason 6 of the past 7 years under coach David Bishop, along with all four of its region titles from 2004-2012 under former coach Bob Christmas.
Jones is not a bit surprised that North Hall is right in the thick of the race for the region championship, despite losing three non-region games to open the season.
“Everyone understands that North Hall is a power program in Hall County, and I have a great deal of respect for coach Bishop and his staff,” Jones said. “(North Hall) has had a lot of success for a long time. A lot of people talked about its early struggles, but they were playing one of the toughest schedules in the state. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that North Hall would be right there in the race for the region championship.”
If North Hall wins, it opens the door to a three-way tie for the region championship that would be settled by region tiebreaker criteria, set in place before the season started. The Trojans still have to play Dawson County (4-4, 3-1), which was on the losing end to Cherokee Bluff 28-27 last week.
Cherokee Bluff remained in control of its destiny for the region title, thanks to a gritty effort and thrilling finish in Week 9 in Dawsonville.
The Bears were put in a good position to win, thanks to running back Jayquan Smith’s 300-yard night and four touchdowns.
Two of his scoring runs were almost 80 yards each.
“Jayquan is the kind of running back who can take it to the house on any play,” Jones said. “He’s an elusive running back.”
Also, a handful of special teams and defensive plays were instrumental in keeping Cherokee Bluff unbeaten.
With less than two minutes left, linebacker Eric Gohman got through the line of scrimmage and knocked the potential game-winning field goal off line.
When senior defensive back Shad Dabney went down early in the game with what Jones said was a foot injury, Micah Hunter stepped in and knocked a ball loose in the end zone before the Tigers wide receiver had control for a touchdown.
And Cherokee Bluff’s Deakon Phillips made a touchdown-saving tackle at the 5-yard line, which resulted later in the Tigers having to settle for a field goal.
“Those four points could have made the difference in the game,” Jones said.
Jones said winning such a fiercely-contested game at Dawson County made all the hard work during the season worth the struggle, along with setting off quite the celebration in the locker room.
“There’s nothing like a celebration after a big win,” Jones said. “One of the reasons we coach is to see the excitement and smiles of the kids after putting in so much hard work.”
However, the hard work is just beginning.
Jones hopes there are more moments to celebrate before 2020 is completed.
Cherokee Bluff vs. North Hall
Gainesville at Denmark
Flowery Branch at Chestatee
Johnson at Clarke Central
East Hall at Madison County
Lakeview Academy vs. St. Francis