CENTRE – Cherokee County High School football coach Jacob Kelley felt senior transfer from Saks CJ Gresham needed to get more touches in the Warrior game plan.
On Friday night against Class 4A, Region 4 rival Anniston, Gresham got those touches, and he made the most of them.
But the game hinged on the Warrior defense making a stop in the closing seconds.
The Warrior ‘D’ stopped Anniston quarterback Kam Sandlin on a third-down 12-yard run in bounds down to their own 6-yard line. The seventh-ranked Bulldogs could never get lined up for another play as time expired. The Warriors held on for a thrilling 21-20 victory.
“That’s what high school football is about,” Kelley said. “These guys, it was about earning respect tonight. We showed up for a fight and we got it. Man, it was just a great atmosphere. What better way to bring this (new turf) field in with something like that? That will go down in ages right there. The win for this community, for these guys, it says it all. I can’t say enough about how gutsy they played to the end. We bent but we didn’t break. I’m proud as heck of them.”
“I’m looking at the scoreboard and I was like ‘They’ve still got to get a play off,’” said Gresham, who also plays defensive back for the Warriors. “I was like ‘They’re not going to get it off.’ We were just so happy to win.”
Gresham ran for 145 yards on 17 carries and scored two touchdowns, including a 2-yard run with 8:24 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“We were prepping him for a couple of weeks, just getting him ready for an opportunity like tonight,” Kelley said. “He stepped up in a big way. He was feeling it tonight. He wanted the ball, and winners want the ball.”
Another Warrior senior also had another big night running the football. Damien Ramsey accumulated 122 yards on 22 carries and scored a touchdown in the first quarter. It was his 27-yard run down to the Bulldog 2 in the fourth quarter that set up Gresham’s go-ahead score.
“I was like ‘We need this touchdown,’” Ramsey said. “I got the ball, seen a gap, and I just hit that gap as hard as I could and went through it. CJ came in big tonight. Tonight he just went crazy. He went off and helped us big time in the running game.”
Gresham also complimented Ramsey on his performance.
“Damien made that last touchdown possible the way he toted that thing. He had a great night too,” Gresham said. “Once I got into the end zone, I knew we could shut the game out.”
Gresham’s second touchdown of the night, along with Daniel Mejia’s extra point, gave the Warriors (2-1, 1-0 Region 4) a 21-14 lead with 8:24 remaining in the game.
But the Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1) battled back on their ensuing drive.
Sophomore running back Malachi Taylor took a Sandlin handoff to the right side. With nothing open there, Taylor reversed field and dashed 56 yards for a touchdown, pulling the Bulldogs within a point at 21-20.
Like they had each of the other two times they scored, the Bulldogs went for two. A false start penalty brought the try for two back five yards. Sandlin called his own number on a run and fell short of the end zone.
Another Bulldog penalty – this time a personal foul on the kickoff – gave the Warriors the ball at midfield with just over six minutes remaining. However, Anniston’s defense forced the Warriors to punt the ball back.
The Bulldogs began their final drive at their own 16. The drive got off to a promising start as Sandlin connected with junior receiver Jaylon Cunningham on a 29-yard pass completion.
A 25-yard Sandlin-to-Antonio Kite completion later in the drive brought the ball down to the Warrior 13 with 25.1 seconds left. The Bulldogs then took their final timeout.
Two Sandlin incomplete pass attempts, and a 5-yard Anniston penalty brought up a third-and-long situation with 16.5 seconds to go.
Sandlin took off on a 12-yard run down the right side of the field, but when the Bulldogs finally got set for one final play the clock had expired, prompting a jubilant celebration on the Warrior sideline, and two ice dunkings of Kelley on the Warriors brand new turf field.
“It feels great,” Kelley said. “The relationship we have with our players is something special. We work five days a week. We started the Monday we got back from Mobile Christian (in a first-round playoff loss last year). We’ve spent a lot of time together. We believe in our guys and they believe in us as coaches. We’ve just got to keep getting better.”
Sandlin, who completed 15-of-24 pass attempts for 178 yards, got the Bulldogs on the board first with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Kite, an Alabama commitment. Jamarius Billingsley’s run for the 2-point conversion fell short, keeping the score at 6-0 Bulldogs.
The Warriors responded with Ramsey’s 6-yard touchdown run to end the first quarter. Mejia’s extra point put the Warriors ahead 7-6, which was the halftime score.
Anniston went back out in front with 7:12 remaining in the third quarter on Taylor’s 9-yard touchdown run. This time, another Billingsley rush for two was good, giving the Bulldogs a 14-7 edge.
Gresham helped tie the game with a 33-yard scoring run with 3:21 left in the third, then helped give the Warriors the lead for good with his 2-yard touchdown run in the fourth, denying Anniston its first 4-0 start since 2003.
“The game plan was to go right at them and match their physicality with what we thought we could do with them,” Kelley said. “We thought we could be just as physical. That was the game plan coming in. There were times we were able to enforce our will. We had them where we felt like they were tired. We’ve just got to be more consistent. We’re not perfect by any means, but hat’s off to the guys for controlling the line of scrimmage.”
Cherokee County travels to White Plains on Friday. Anniston has an open date.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Warrior freshman lineman Landon Ransum had a scary moment with 5:12 remaining in the second quarter. He was injured on a play and remained down on the field for several minutes before being put on a stretcher and carted to an ambulance. Ransum gave a thumbs-up to the fans as he was being wheeled off.