When Kent Briggs arrived in Cherokee in 2014, he answered the call for a new head coach to clean up the mess of a 0-11 record.
He found just 13 players on the roster and some of the school’s best athletes reluctant to play the sport.
The Braves had fallen on hard times, in the midst of a stretch of six straight losing seasons and almost complete futility in the competitive Smoky Mountain 1-A Conference.
But he also inherited a talented group of middle school players who were willing to play immediately and take their lumps as they learned the game at the varsity level and learned how to win.
Briggs has taught them well, and he has not let a second diagnosis of cancer slow him down.
The program has completely turned, from the depths of a 3-33 record in SMC play from 2010-2015 that included three winless conference schedules.
Now they are undefeated (8-0, 3-0), ranked among the top 1-A teams in the state and on a two-season roll of 14 wins in their last 15 games.
Briggs, an Asheville native who played quarterback at Reynolds High and Western Carolina, was a longtime college coach, serving as an assistant at WCU, N.C. State and UConn before a six-year stint at head coach of the Catamounts (2002-07).
But he had a lifelong affection for Cherokee, an endearment that dated back to his childhood days of camping in the area.
That, and a desire to stay close to home with his wife Lisa enjoying a successful career as a professor at WCU, led him to take the Cherokee job four years ago.
And he has battled more than Southern Conference and SMC opponents during his coaching career.
He survived head and neck cancer during his tenure at WCU and is now dealing with prostate cancer. He is currently receiving treatment while continuing to lead the Braves through the best stretch of football since the program finished 12-2, 12-1, 8-4 and 11-3 in a four-year stretch (2005-2008).
“The people of Cherokee have always been very supportive of me, and especially since I was diagnosed with prostate cancer (in the spring),” said Briggs, 59.
“I’m going through treatments and I’m still ticking. Coaching takes so much focus and effort that it helps to work on that and not have time to worry about other things. “
The year-by-year improvement on the field has been gradual - 3-9 in Briggs’ first season, then 4-8 before a breakthrough 9-4 season last year.
After opening SMC play with losses to perennial powers Murphy and Swain last season dropped the Braves’ league mark to 3-35 since 2010, the real turnaround began.
“We had a real meltdown in the Swain game,” Briggs recalled. “The team chemistry wasn’t good, and we had some kids who were kind of selfish, and we didn’t play with composure.
“It was an embarrassing performance. We had some people quit, we had some people mad at us, but then we pulled together and realized we had to play as a team.
“And then we started winning.”
And except for a third-round playoff loss to Mitchell that snapped a six-game winning streak to cap the 2016 season, the Braves have kept on winning this year.
“Our (2014) freshmen went through some tough times, but they stuck together and kept working, and now they are the seniors who are a big part of our success,” said Briggs, who counts former WCU coaching legend Bob Waters as a mentor.
In the first couple of years, Briggs said multi-talented athletes like Dustin Johnson and Jason McMillian came out for football because they wanted to play for Briggs in his spread offense, and that helped turn the corner.
Now the team is in the capable hands of four-year varsity players like seniors Tye Mintz and Byron Locust. A versatile quarterback who has committed to Gardner-Webb, Mintz is adding to his career totals of 8,200 yards of offense and 87 touchdowns accounted for.
Locust has 234 tackles over four seasons, including a team-high 55 this year as a lineman.
Briggs said he and the community are enjoying the undefeated season so far and look forward to battles vs. Robbinsville (Friday night) and defending SMC and state champion Murphy (Nov. 3) , games that will decide the league title this season.
“I couldn’t have picked a better place to be in terms of how I’ve been treated, and I feel very fortunate that we have a good group of young men who have bought in to what we are trying to do,” he said.
“The Cherokee community love and support football, and they have high expectations. We’ve got the opportunity to do something big, and right now these kids believe they can do that.”