CENTRE – Year one of the Jacob Kelley football era at Cherokee County High School proved a competitive one.
The Warriors found themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt, needing a Week 8 victory at Hokes Bluff to secure a spot in the postseason.
After falling behind by two scores, the Warriors rallied to force overtime, then went into double overtime.
With their playoff hopes on the line, and instead of forcing a third extra period, Kelley and Warriors decided to go for two and the win after the game’s final touchdown. They fell short in a 28-27 heartbreaker.
Cherokee County shook off that loss to win their final two games and finish with a 6-4 record, giving them a little momentum heading into off-season workouts.
Those workouts were going strong until things were abruptly halted around the middle of March.
“We came in on a Friday and it was shut down,” Kelley said, referring to the COVID-19 outbreak. “Then, it was how do we do something without being together, whether it be sending the workouts through social media and group texts, just trying to keep those guys active. My guys are hard workers, but they’re better hard workers when they’re with me.”
Just like the end of the 2019 season, the Warriors persevered. They received word they could resume preparing for the season again in the early part of summer, and now, they’re just a few days removed from starting a new chapter – one they hope will end with a deep postseason run.
“The best news I got (over the summer) was those state guidelines that said you can show back up to work,” Kelley said. “Ever since then, it’s been great. We didn’t lose anything. Some of the guys have been able to get stronger up to that point (in March). Some of them are right back to where they were, and they weren’t in a bad spot in March.”
These days, the Warriors aren’t taking anything for granted because they already know how quickly things can change.
“We’re leaving it all empty in the bucket every day,” senior all-around athlete Slade Alexander said. “Who knows the future right now? We’re just going hard every day getting ready for the season. The attitudes on this team, we’re coming together pretty nicely right now. We’ve still got some things to work on, but it’s going to come. We’re just going to keep working.
“We fell short last year, but the guys that are returning back, we haven’t forgotten that feeling of what we had (after the Hokes Bluff loss). It’s definitely not a good way to go out. We’ve talked it over that we’re not going out like that this year. We’re ready to go. We want to play.”
Alexander’s optimism for the Warriors having a more successful season is strong, and who could blame him? He’s one of nine starters on offense and defense returning to the Warrior lineups.
Kelley said Alexander is “as vocal a leader as we have.”
“He’s a ball of energy and he keeps everything up-tempo,” Kelley said. “I like to go fast from the offensive side of the ball, and it plays right into his strength. He loves going fast. Sometimes you have to pull him back because he’s all dog. He is what you want in a football player. He wants this team to be successful. He is 100 percent willing to do anything it takes to do that.”
Senior leadership is something else the Warriors have plenty of this season. In addition to Alexander, Kelley said lineman/linebacker Nas Diamond and wide receiver/defensive back Connor Elrod have emerged in that department as well.
“Nas has always been a vocal guy, but he’s also somebody who will do the right things on the field,” Kelley said. “Connor Elrod is a master of consistency. He shows up every day and works. He doesn’t say a whole lot, but he leads by example. Everything those three guys do just spills over to everybody else.”
Like Alexander, Elrod is anxious for the season to begin.
“I’m pretty sure everybody’s ready to play some football,” he said. “It’s obviously been different with the circumstances we’ve had, but we’ve had the same mindset the whole time. We come in and work as hard as we can.
“We’ve just got to capitalize on our opportunities. We didn’t capitalize on the things we needed to do last year. We’ve just got to make the plays so we can get back in the playoffs this year.”
When the versatile Alexander isn’t behind center at quarterback for the Warriors this season, Kelley is confident in sophomore Cade Hopper and junior Damien Ramsey to get the job done.
“Cade has done a tremendous job of getting bigger and stronger, and his arm has come along,” Kelley said. “He’s put himself in a position if something did happen to Slade or if we wanted to move Slade somewhere else, we’ve got two guys in Cade and Damien who can go right in there.
“We talk about Slade being versatile, Damien is so versatile. He can literally do it all, from running back to quarterback to tight end to defensive end to linebacker. All I’ve got to do is say a play, give a formation, and he’s there.”
Regardless of who’s at quarterback, the Warriors have plenty of receivers to utilize in Elrod, Colten Hill (senior), Whit Johnson (junior) and Malachi Horton (sophomore).
“All those guys have done a good job of learning the system and are ready to go,” Kelley said.
Another strength the Warriors have is up front. They return four starters along the offensive line, including Diamond, fellow seniors Isaac Hunter and Silas Robertson, and junior Jay Watts. Kelley said he’s got a competition going right now at right guard between seniors Ryon Dunn and Thomas Kennon.
“One day Dunn might be a little ahead, the next day Thomas just has a really good day. It’s been great competition,” Kelley said.
Many of those names on offense will double on defense. Dunn and Kennon double along the defensive front. Kelley said sophomore Dalton Chesnut has been one of the biggest surprises in the off-season at defensive end, noting the Warriors “have a hard time blocking him.”
Diamond moves from the defensive line to the Warrior linebacker corps this season.
“That was a big step for me, but I feel like I can be pretty good at it,” Diamond said. “I’ve only played linebacker one time and that was in middle school. It was pretty hard. I had to learn coverages and all, but I’m getting pretty good at it now.”
Alexander, Elrod, Hill and Johnson will patrol the Warrior secondary. Junior Walker Pruitt will be at safety.
The Warriors were also dealt a surprise in the off-season when they were placed in Class 4A, Region 4, one of the state’s Southern regions. Several of their region opponents are familiar ones, including Anniston, Cleburne County, Jacksonville and White Plains, but now Handley and Munford are also region foes.
“I felt like we were in a tough region last year, and it’s a tough region again,” Kelley said. “I feel like if we can get through the region, we’ll be ready for the playoffs. I feel like anybody in this region that makes the playoffs is going to be ready. It’s a very tough, competitive region. We’re looking forward to it.”
And the Warriors are also looking forward to playing a lot more at home this season.
After having just four home games last year, Cherokee County is scheduled to play at Warrior Stadium seven times in 2020. Five of the Warriors’ first six games are at Bobby Johnson Field, including the season-opener against Carver-Birmingham on Aug. 21. Defending Class 3A state champion Piedmont pays a visit on Aug. 28.