FLOWERY BRANCH – The Bears are Region 7-3A champions.
In only the program’s third season, Cherokee Bluff (9-0, 5-0 Region 7-3A) used a stifling second-half defense and scored 17 unanswered points to beat North Hall, 41-24, on Friday at Bear Stadium.
The win clinched the No. 1 seed in the Class 3A playoffs later this month.
“I don’t know if there are words to communicate,” Bluff coach Tommy Jones said. “It’s kind of surreal. I'm really proud of the young men in our program and our coaching staff. These guys have kind of seen this thing from the very beginning and find a way to win a championship in year three. So, I’m really proud of everybody involved.”
The final numbers, however, aren’t as impressive as you might think – Bluff finished with 290 total yards, while North Hall had 280. Bluff’s defense kept the state’s fourth-leading rusher, Clark Howell, under 100 yards. He had 76 and a touchdown. North Hall (5-4, 4-1 Region 7-3A) held Bluff’s leading rusher, Jayquan Smith, to just 87 yards and a touchdown. And despite the score, the game was a boxing match.
“I thought our guys did a great job of being resilient, continuing to pound away,” Jones said. “It was not easy. A lot of credit to Coach [Stuart] Cunningham (defensive coordinator) and those guys from North Hall. They prepared their kids well. It was tough sledding tonight. We just found a way late to score a couple, which was really sweet.”
After a first half that saw the Bears go up almost immediately on a 58-yard pass to Kansas-commit Shad Dabney (4-6, 98 yards, 1TD) from Sebastian Irons (8 of 12, 198 yards 2TDs) to back-to-back special team’s scores from both sides, a Bluff 27-yard Mason Gill field goal and a North Hall 20-yard Luke Brown field goal, the game was tied at the half, 17-17.
But, perhaps, the biggest momentum shift of the game was right before half, when North Hall lined up to kick a field goal. Brown actually missed the 22-yard try but was roughed. The penalty gave the Trojans the ball at the Bears’ 3-yard line and a new set of downs. Bluff's goal-line defense stopped the Trojans three straight times, forcing them to kick the field goal to tie the game at the half.
“Those stops right there at the end of the first half to force them to kick the field goal to come in tied were huge,” Jones said. “If that momentum had swung to where they took the lead before half time … it’s always hard going into halftime to get your guys back. Forcing them to kick a field goal was big.”
North Hall big played the Bears on its opening drive of the second half, on 3rd down, Puryear hit Howell on a 73-yard scoring strike. The touchdown gave the Trojans their first lead of the game, 24-17, with 10:09 to go in the third, but it didn’t last for long.
“You’re not going to hold North Hall at bay,” Jones said. “They’re so explosive and so efficient. They force you to defend just a crazy amount of stuff, and they’re so good at what they do. I do credit coach Griffin and our defensive staff. At halftime, they did a great job to find ways to limit those guys and keep them from having as many big plays. I thought we were able to get them behind the chains was big, too."
Thanks to Irons who found Dabney again on a 29-yard pass on a fourth down that set up the Brayden Nance one-yard scoring run a play later. After that, the Bears reeled off 17 unanswered, including a 56-yard pass to Eli Little and a 26-yard Smith run. Little, who blocked a punt and scored a touchdown, capped his night by dropping Puryear for a 15-yard loss on fourth down to seal the win.
"We were really fortunate to throw and catch the ball well tonight,” Jones said.