“The key to handling success is also the key to handling adversity,” Cherokee Bluff football coach Tommy Jones said. “That goes for football and life.”
And for the Bears, there’s been both in just three short years. The same team that went winless in 2018 now has a chance of going 10-0 in the 2020 regular season.
“A lot of our success has to do with the fact that we’ve had so many players who have started 29 football games at Cherokee Bluff,” Jones said.
And, along the way, the Bears used adversity as a way of turning it into success.
“When we were 0-10, we had the mentality to flush it and keep working,” senior tight end/outside linebacker Eli Little said. “Now that we’re successful, we can’t get caught up in the fact that we’re unbeaten. We look at it like we’re 0-0 every week.”
Right now, Cherokee Bluff is riding high as the Region 7-3A champion and it has a chance to wrap up the regular season with a perfect mark with a victory against White County (6-2, 2-2) on Friday in Flowery Branch. With a win, the ninth-ranked Bears (9-0, 5-0 Region 7-3A), who will open the playoffs at home on Nov. 27, can become the first program in Hall County to go unbeaten in the regular season since Gainesville in 2009.
Three years can seem like a lifetime when building a football program from scratch. Yet, the pieces have fallen into place quite nicely for Cherokee Bluff, which wrapped up the region championship by beating North Hall 41-24 last week.
White County is already the No. 4 seed to the postseason from the region. The Warriors were hampered early in the region schedule when senior quarterback J. Ben Haynes missed a significant amount of playing time due to injury.
“White County is probably the best No. 4 seed to the playoffs in the state,” Jones said. “We know that’s a really good football team.”
“White County has a quarterback who really pulls that team together,” Little said. “If he had been healthy, I feel like they could have been 9-0 going into this week. I feel like our region could be the best all-around region. Every game could be for the region championship.”
Jones said he never made 10-0 in the regular season a marker of success, but it sure indicates the level of commitment that the first wave of players through the program have put into making Cherokee Bluff a program to contend with for many years to come.
“The thought of going 10-0 in the regular season was never a consideration,” said Jones, who before taking over at Cherokee Bluff, guided Dacula to region championships in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
When asked which players have been the trendsetters for the Bears, Jones said there are too many to list.
However, he pointed to some of his defensive stalwarts (Little, Eric Gohman and Myka Sims) as just a few who have taken on many roles, as the Bears look to put on a run in the 2020 postseason.
Even though the first seven games of the regular season came with lopsided wins for the Bears, they’ve had to make key plays late, in order to prevail in a 28-27 decision against Dawson County in Week 10 and then the following week against the Trojans.
Against Dawson County, Gohman had one of the biggest plays for Cherokee Bluff when he tipped and knocked off course a potential game-winning field goal attempt by Dawson County, late in the fourth period.
Then against the Trojans, Little had the longest touchdown catch from quarterback Sebastian Irons, midway through the fourth quarter to give the Bears a double-digit lead, before icing the game in the final two minutes with a long touchdown run by junior Jayquan Smith.
Another lesson learned by the Bears these past two weeks is they can rally, even against high-caliber competition.
“Against Dawson County, we were down until the fourth quarter,” Little said. “Then we also trailed against North Hall. We just kept in mind that we can’t give up.”
And, equally important to their success at Cherokee Bluff, is everyone enjoys being around one another.
“We’ve created a healthy culture with our program,” Jones said. “The atmosphere is positive and we’ve talked about, since Day 1, about building a culture that precedes winning.”
Gainesville vs. North Forsyth
Flowery Branch vs. East Hall
Chestatee vs. Cedar Shoals
North Hall vs. Dawson County
Cherokee Bluff vs. White County
Lakeview Academy vs. Providence Christian