The unranked Cherokee Warriors, playing at No. 1 Roswell with a Region 4 title in the high class on the line, were 6 yards away from the go-head score with four minutes remaining. But the Hornets defense, as it has all year long, came through once again as senior defensive back Xavier McKinney reeled in an interception that allowed Roswell to escape with a 20-14 win on Friday at Ray Manus Stadium.
For the Hornets (10-0, 5-0) it’s their second straight undefeated regular season and region title. They’re the No. 1 seed for Region 4 and can host the first two rounds, beginning next week against the No. 4 seed from Region 2. They’ll be seeking their first state title since 2006, when they shared the AAAAA crown with Peachtree Ridge after the championship game ended in a tie.
Last year the Hornets won 14 straight before losing in the AAAAAA title game to Colquitt County, a team they beat this season 34-3 on Sept. 9.
Following the Cherokee win, Hornets coach John Ford was proud of his team and a defense that hasn’t allowed more than 14 points in a game all season.
“I’m just thankful they accepted the challenge,” Ford said. “We played a tough schedule. There were no easy teams on our schedule at all and every week they rose to the occasion.”
The Warriors (6-4, 4-1) had a remarkable turnaround to a season they started 2-3. They ripped off four consecutive wins to open region play, which put them in position to play for a region title on Friday. As consolation, they’ll host at least the first round as a No. 2 seed.
This was a game in which the Hornets were a heavy favorite, but they committed four turnovers, two of which resulted in the Warriors’ only scores.
The Hornets were up 10-0 in the second quarter when quarterback Malik Willis threw his second interception in as many possessions. Two plays later, the Warriors, playing with a nothing-to-lose attitude and a bag of trick plays, scored when Cherokee quarterback Nolan Donley caught a 35-yard pass from running back Aaron Knowles after Donley pitched the ball to Knowles and ran a wheel route. That pushed the score to 10-7 with six minutes remaining in the first half, a score that would hold through halftime.
With the Hornets ahead 17-7 late in the third quarter and in possession, a Roswell receiver dropped a lateral that was scooped up by Warriors defensive back Brendan Kinney, who ran 43 yards for the score after most players thought the play was dead. The score pulled Cherokee to within 17-14 with 1:07 left in the third.
Turner Barckhoff’s 21-yard field goal for Roswell with 8:31 remaining brought the score to its final margin, but not before Cherokee had a couple of chances to pull off the upset. With five minutes left, the Warriors’ Jack Carroll delivered a 41-yard punt to the Hornets 2. With Roswell backed up to inside its own 5, Carroll, also a linebacker for Cherokee, stripped Roswell running back Sheldon Evans and the Warriors recovered on the Roswell 11.
After Donley completed a 6-yard pass to put Cherokee on the Hornets’ 4, he made an ill-advised throw to McKinney, who appeared to dart 98 yards for a pick-6. But the Hornets were penalized for a block in the back on the play, and Roswell’s long-snapper was called for a penalty for running onto the field, though he thought he was lining up for an extra point attempt.
Cherokee managed to get the ball back after two Roswell quarterback kneels and an Evans run out of bounds led the Hornets to kick a field goal attempt they missed on.
The Warriors had the ball on their own 20 and with no timeouts with 53 seconds remaining and managed to move the ball to the Hornets’ 38, but the game ended when Donley was sacked by a group of Hornets.
Evans led Roswell with 118 yards and a score on 24 carries. Willis had 63 yards on 11 carries and completed 11 of his 18 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown to two interceptions. Jayden Comma had five catches for 62 yards and Kentrell Barber had three catches for 32 yards and a score.
The Warriors were led by Montrell Washington, who had seven carries for 81 yards and six catches for 55 yards.
Cherokee 0 7 7 0 - 14
Roswell 7 3 7 3 - 20
R - Kentrell Barber 16 pass from Malik Wills (Turner Barckhoff kick)
C - Camren Fambrough 35 pass from Aaron Knowles (Dima Lynes kick)
R - Barckhoff 40 FG
R - Sheldon Evans 7 run (Barckhoff kick)
C - Brendan Kenney 43 fumble return (Lynes kick)
R - Barckhoff 21 FG