For the first two quarters of the state 1A football championship on Saturday, Cherokee High’s fortunes looked as gloomy as the weather.
On a cold, dank, wet afternoon at Carter-Finley Stadium, the high-scoring Braves were stymied by the North Duplin defense.
Held scoreless in a half for the first time this season, the Braves didn’t panic – they adjusted.
About the time snow started falling in Raleigh, so did the Rebels.
A 21-point second half, all three scores bunched together in a seven-minute span, and a stout defensive effort gave Cherokee (14-1) its first state football title in school history.
The 21-13 win completed an impressive turnaround by coach Kent Briggs, who inherited an 0-11 team four years ago and has battled cancer for the second time this season while leading his team to glory.
Quarterback Tye Mintz keyed the comeback, wrapping up a splendid career with more than 10,000 career yards and finishing in a style every senior dreams of when he walks away.
He rushed five yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter to tie the score at 7-7, then capped a go-ahead 95-yard drive early in the fourth period with a 51-yard sprint into the end zone.
After Cherokee defensive standout Bryan Locust snuffed out a fake punt attempt deep in North Duplin territory, Braves’ tailback Isaiah Evans scored the game-clinching TD on a 12-yard run for a 21-7 lead with 9:02 left to play.
That allowed the Rebels (14-1) to score a late touchdown without too much damage to the lead, and Cherokee fans started celebrating after their team recovered an onside kick and ran out the clock.
“I’m in shock, this is just unbelievable,” said Mintz. “We do it all for our fans and our community, and we’re proud to make them proud.”
Mintz was named the game’s outstanding player after rushing for 110 yards and the two scores. In four playoff games, Mintz had 1,118 yards of total offense (769 rushing) and accounted for 17 TDs.
His career numbers include 10,032 yards of total offense and a touchdown responsibility total of 108.
The state title was the 32nd for the Smoky Mountain Conference since 1972, when the state started playing for championships in four classes. Cherokee is the sixth different SMC program to bring home a title.
North Duplin overcame three first-half turnovers to take a 7-0 lead at intermission. Quarterback Will Archer scored on an 11-yard run in the second period to give the Rebels the lead.