Two years removed from an 0-10 season, Cherokee has now posted back-to-back postseason appearances and this Friday will make its 10th appearance in the state playoffs.
Cherokee (7-3, 3-2) will travel to Atlanta on Friday to play at Westlake (6-4, 4-1) after earning the No. 4 seed out of Region 4AAAAAAA. Westlake, which won its sixth straight region title and is making is seventh straight playoff appearance, earned the No. 1 seed out of region 2AAAAAAA.
Westlake has won four out its last five and its out-of-region schedule included Grayson, (the No. 1 team in Class AAAAAAA) as well as John Curtis (La.), one of the more well-known high school programs in the country.
“We’re gonna get really challenged this week,” Cherokee coach Josh Shaw said. “Their quarterbacks can throw it a mile and they have kids on the outside who can go get it. They are a big vertical passing game team, so we’re really going to have to play the deep ball well.
“We’re gonna have to score some points too. Their nose guard is one of the best we’ve seen and they play man-to-man in the secondary so our receivers are going to have to beat that man coverage.”
Cherokee has won three of its last four games and is coming off a 38-10 win at Lassiter. Defense has been Cherokee’s calling card all year, surrendering 13.2 points per game, but the passing game has seen a surge in recent weeks as well. Sophomore quarterback A.J. Swann threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns last week and is second in Cherokee County with a 57% completion percentage and 1,953 passing yards .
“A.J. (Swann) is probably throwing the best he has all season in the last few games,” Shaw said. “He’s absolutely dropping dimes right now. Devin Ellison really broke out last week too.”
On the other side, Westlake has played two quarterbacks this year in junior Jimmy Inman and freshman R.J. Johnson. Inman has received most of the snaps but both are excellent athletes and capable of throwing receivers open downfield.
Chase Lloyd, a Vanderbilt commit, leads a talented receiving corps for Westlake. Containing Westlake’s explosive passing game will be a key for Cherokee.
“The key thing is going to be keeping them in front of us,” Shaw said. “We want to make them march down the field and earn it.”
Cherokee’s ability to establish its own running game may also play a pivotal role. Keith Adams Jr. rushed for 153 yards and three touchdowns last week and has a chance to go over 1,000 yards on the season with 39 more. The threat of the run game could open up opportunities for Cherokee’s own playmakers on the outside while also keeping Westlake’s offense off the field.
Adarrius Harshaw leads Cherokee in receptions (38), receiving yards (493) and receiving touchdowns (5) and Devin Ellison reemerged as a threat with seven receptions for 111 yards last week. Eight different players have caught touchdowns for Cherokee this season.
Shaw said the support throughout the Cherokee community never wavers regardless of the record but added he learned more about himself during the 0-10 season in 2017 than he ever did in a playoff season. Now back in the postseason for the second year in a row, and the third time in four seasons, Shaw said he wants his players to appreciate the moment.
“We really did a self evaluation of our program after that 0-10 season and had to decide how to get things back on track,” Shaw said. “I really want our kids to enjoy this experience. We’re 1 of 32 still playing and when you look at the history of our high school playoff berths are few and far between.”