Cherokee Bluff’s first playoff run in program history came to a halt Friday evening with a 23-21 defeat at the hands of Carver-Atlanta in Flowery Branch.
The Region 7-3A champion Bears (11-1) had a number of opportunities to jump ahead of the visiting Panthers late, but a botched field goal snap and late interception from quarterback Sebastian Irons in the game’s closing minutes sealed the result of the second-round matchup in Class 3A.
“We had our opportunities,” Cherokee Bluff coach Tommy Jones said. “We had a chance to make some plays, and we just weren’t able to. There’s a lot of reasons potentially why. You can look at the conditions. You can look at a lot of different things that were the same for both teams. Unfortunately, we just didn’t find a way to win it.”
Jayquan Smith led the way offensively for the Bears, generating 118 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 23 carries, but the effort was not enough to pick up the win that would send Cherokee Bluff to the 3A state quarterfinals.
Smith got things started with a 3-yard rushing score less than three minutes into the first quarter, but the Bears offense stagnated for much of the remainder of the opening half.
Carver’s Deandre Buchannon returned the kickoff following the score for a touchdown, and the Panthers followed it up with rushing scores from Kiontae Strozier and Terrico Faulks, adding a safety to get the score to 23-6 with about two minutes to go until halftime.
Cherokee Bluff picked things up from there, scoring a touchdown on the last play before the half with a pass from Shad Dabney to Jaylon Justice.
The Bears improved play continued into the second half, where they got another rushing touchdown from Smith and added a safety of their own to get within 2 points of the lead.
But Cherokee Bluff could not connect on a long field goal with two minutes left to play, and while the Bears did make a stop to get the ball back with around a minute to go, Irons threw an interception on the first play of the team’s final drive to ice the game.
Following the defeat, Jones delivered a message of optimism to the team, encouraging them to take pride in the dramatic turnaround the program has seen in the past few years, from 0-10 in its inaugural season to 11-2 this year.
“We’re going to continue doing what we’ve always done and keep building our program brick by brick,” he said. “We’re going to lick our wounds a little bit and we’re going to look back and realize we had a fantastic year. We’re going to get back to work and keep doing the things that got us to this point.”