CANTON — An offensive unit’s output can be fickle at times, but an old adage proved true last week for Cherokee.
Cherokee went on the road last Friday to beat Westlake 41-23 in the first round of the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs, doing so with the help of another impressive performance by its defense. The Warriors (8-3) recorded five interceptions and became the only road team in Class AAAAAAA to win a first-round game.
Before the season began, Cherokee coach Josh Shaw said he felt this year’s defense had the chance to be even better than last year’s, despite losing several key pieces in McKinley Hunter and Grant Mogelnicki.
To this point, Shaw’s premonition has been accurate.
“We’ve got 21 interceptions this season,” Shaw said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a team with that many interceptions in a single season.”
Defensive coordinator Davis Harvey, in his second stint coaching the defense at Cherokee and with 25 years of coaching experience, said this year’s Warrior defense is on par with the best he’s ever coached. After rejoining the program in 2016, he transitioned the defense to 3-4 base, which seems to have served the program well over the past few seasons.
Harvey was the defensive coordinator under then-coach Brian Dameron in 2003 and 2004 when Cherokee made back-to-back state quarterfinal appearances, the furthest the program has ever advanced in the state playoffs. It provides Harvey with perspective while comparing this year’s team with those of the past.
“Those were some good defenses during those third-round runs, but this year’s defense is definitely in the top two or three I’ve ever coached,” Harvey said. “I don’t keep up with the stats and everything, but, turnover-wise, it’s probably No. 1.”
“You look at that team we played last week, and they had some big-time recruited players, but our defensive guys went in there knowing we were going to win. Our defensive coaching staff has also been together for a few years now and we all bounce ideas off each other. When you get players who believe and coaches who believe, that’s when you’re going to have a great defense. I tell them every week, I’ll put them up with any defense in the state.”
Cherokee’s defense has recorded 30 takeaways this season. Only twice, in losses to Cartersville and Etowah, have the Warriors failed to record at least one takeaway.
Etowah beat Cherokee on a last-second touchdown in overtime to complete a second-half comeback, and players said the following week of practice was a turning point for the Warriors. Cherokee defeated eventual Region 4AAAAAAA champion Roswell 21-14 the following Friday.
“I think we won that Roswell game because of that loss to Etowah,” senior safety Patrick Dahlen said. “That was our best week of practice after that (Etowah) loss. Instead of getting down on ourselves, everyone just locked in and focused on turning the season around.”
Harvey said Dahlen is one of five core seniors on the defense who have been integral to the unit’s success. Brandon Byrd, a three-year starter at linebacker who recorded two interceptions last week, and safety A.J. Perales handle a majority of the defensive calls according to Harvey. Outside linebacker Nathan Muse and defensive end Hunter Pendley have both developed into key pieces as well.
“On the field, Muse is a guy who really holds the other guys accountable,” Harvey said. “And Hunter has become one of the best defensive linemen I’ve ever coached, especially for his size. Offenses are so fast now, I don’t really do a lot of calling during the game. We make adjustments, but Byrd and Perales are the one’s making all the calls we have. It’s really a credit to them.”
Dahlen, who has committed to play at the Air Force Academy, had one of the five interceptions last week, giving him a team-leading five on the season. Junior linebacker Braesen Parker finished the regular season as the leading tackler in Cherokee County, and his 12 tackles last week gives him 138 on the season.
The statistical leaders are spread out. Seven players have caused fumbles, eight have recorded interceptions and 12 have broken up at least one pass. Byrd and Dahlen are second and third on the team, respectively, in tackles. Pendley and Ty Swanson are first and second in tackles for loss.
The road will get no easier Friday when Cherokee travels to Archer (8-3), the No. 2 seed out of Region 8AAAAAAA. Though Dahlen is the only player on Cherokee’s defense currently committed to play in college, the lack of star power seems to have benefited Cherokee.
“The trust is there for us on defense,” Byrd said. “We’ll have to play physical again this week, but when we all do our job, we can play with anyone.”
Cherokee will play the underdog role once again Friday, but this group does not seem to shy away from that idea.
“We’re not the biggest kids around, but we surprise a lot of people,” Perales said. “We’re not ready for it to be over.”