Tied at 35 with 2:31 left in Friday’s Class 4A, Region 5 football battle with Jacksonville, the Warriors were deep in their own territory and about to punt the ball away with hopes of creating a turnover or forcing overtime.
Instead, a high snap over punter Tanner Young’s head was recovered by the Golden Eagles at the Warrior 15. Two plays later, Jacksonville junior tailback Dominique Thomas scored on a 9-yard rush to the left side with 1:36 to go in the game.
The score proved to be the difference as the Golden Eagles escaped with a 42-35 victory at Warrior Stadium and dropped Cherokee County to 0-3 (0-2 Region 7) on the season.
“We just continue to make mistakes to kill ourselves,” Warrior coach Tripp Curry said. “There were a lot of mistakes out there tonight. We’ve dropped two games in a row we probably could have won and didn’t do it. The ball’s not bouncing our way right now, and we’ve got to get it bouncing our way.”
In the second half, things appeared to bounce the Warriors’ way. Down 35-14 at the half, Cherokee County rallied with a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes by Young and a 4-yard touchdown run by junior tailback Ty Green to tie the game at 35.
Momentum had switched to the Warriors’ side, but it still wasn’t enough for them to come away with a win.
“We come back and made a game of it, and I’m glad that we did,” Curry said. “It’s just disappointing when you lose one you can win. We’ve got a good football team. We’ve just got to learn how to win a game.”
First-year Jacksonville coach Clint Smith warned the Golden Eagles (3-0, 2-0 Region 5) at halftime that they needed to finish in the second half, even with such a big lead.
“We were able to jump up big, but then in the second half, it was like a tale of two games. They had all the momentum,” said Smith, who’s guided Jacksonville to its first 3-0 start since 1999. “I’m so proud of our guys for gutting it out at the end, making that big play on special teams. They got the ball in the house and won.
“It was great for our kids to win a football game like this. We’ve faced so much adversity. We had so many people out tonight with injuries, but so many young men stepped into roles they haven’t had all year long. I’m proud of them and I’m proud for Jacksonville High School.”
Green turned in a gold performance for the Warriors on Friday, rushing for 175 yards on 23 carries with three touchdowns, but so did his counterpart in Jacksonville’s Thomas. He finished with 172 yards on 21 attempts with three scores as well.
Green got things going for the Warriors with 3:20 to go in the first quarter. After a punt return by Jacob Whitmire gave the Warriors the ball at the Jacksonville 27-yard line, Green scored on an 11-yard run. Eric Burgess connected on the extra point, giving Cherokee County a 7-0 lead.
That lead didn’t last long. Thanks to a big kick return by the Golden Eagles’ Maxwell Thurmond, Jacksonville had the ball at the Warrior 35. Two plays later, Thomas took it 34 yards for the game-tying score.
Another big play loomed large against the Warriors on their next possession. Young was intercepted by the Golden Eagles’ Malik Reed, who returned the ball 42 yards for a touchdown. Jackson Bell kicked the extra point, giving the Golden Eagles a 14-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Cherokee County tied the game at 14 on Green’s second touchdown run of the night – this one a 10-yard run just 10 seconds into the second quarter.
But another big return by the Golden Eagles on the ensuing kickoff gave Jacksonville the ball at the Warrior 30. This time, the Warrior defense held and forced Jacksonville to punt.
A 53-yard run by Green set up a promising start to the drive for the Warriors, but a 42-yard field goal attempt by Burgess fell short of the mark.
Thomas gave the Golden Eagles the lead again on a 42-yard touchdown run with 6:02 left in the half. Bell’s extra point provided Jacksonville with a 21-14 advantage.
After a Warrior punt, Jacksonville scored again. This time, Bell connected with Thurmond on a 58-yard touchdown pass. The point after made it 28-14 Jacksonville with just over a minute remaining before halftime.
The Golden Eagles used a bit of trickery on the kickoff, recovering an onside kick at the Warrior 46. Three plays later, Bell tossed another touchdown pass. This one went to Thomas for 12 yards, and the Golden Eagles went into halftime with a 35-14 advantage.
Bell ended the game completing 7 of 13 passes for 113 yards and two scores.
Cherokee County proved it wasn’t out of the game in the third quarter. After a Jacksonville punt, the Warriors marched 95 yards in eight plays, capped off by Young’s 62-yard touchdown strike to Logan Pierce.
Young finished the game completing 17 of 33 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Pierce was his top receiver, with five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.
Cherokee County used a bit of its own trickery on the extra point, as Wade Griffith pitched the ball to Nahum Horton who ran it in for two, making the score 35-22.
Whitmire posted another big punt return – this one for 65 yards – with 3:30 to go in the third. Seven plays later, Young connected with Griffith on a 3-yard touchdown pass. Burgess booted the extra point, inching the Warriors closer at 35-29.
Griffith finished with four catches for 41 yards and a score.
The Warriors tied it on Green’s 4-yard touchdown run with 7:17 to go in the game, but the Golden Eagles’ William Clingan prevented them from taking the lead by blocking the extra point.
That ultimately set the stage for Thomas’ final score of the night.
Cherokee County looks to get in the win column on Friday at Cleburne County. Jacksonville hosts Munford.