The visitors’ side at Mitchell High’s E.L. Briggs Stadium began filling up about an hour before last week’s Western Regional final football game against Cherokee.
By game time, that side of the stadium was full of hundreds of fans, and the overflow dotted a grassy bank surrounding the stadium, Braves’ fans standing around the perimeter, others spreading blankets like a picnic lunch.
And they were rewarded for driving two hours or more to the remote outpost of Ledger in Mitchell County, for they witnessed history.
Their beloved football team had beaten a nemesis, a thorough 42-28 victory that took the Braves to the brink they have never breached, a state championship.
And when the final second ticked off the clock, the Cherokee players turned toward their crowd, holding one finger upward and toward their fans, sharing the celebration that would soon include parents, friends and followers on the field to hug and dance and be happy.
“Cherokee has always supported the Braves, and especially the last couple of years (when the team has posted a 22-6 record),” said Cherokee coach Kent Briggs.
“It was a great crowd at Mitchell, and I think that made a big difference with our players, to know they had that kind of support.”
Five times the previous four seasons, Mitchell had beaten Cherokee, including a 45-14 win in 2016 in the third round of the playoffs.
But this game would be different. With quarterback Tye Mintz rushing for three touchdowns, throwing for another and catching a pass for a fifth score, Cherokee advanced to the state championship game for the first time since 1978.
Now the Braves (13-1) advance to Carter Finley Stadium in Raleigh, for a noon kickoff Saturday against North Duplin (14-0) for the state 1A championship.
Among those in the crowd at Mitchell was Cherokee High principal Debora Foerst, who has been around Braves’ athletics her entire life.
“The atmosphere was incredible, and the excitement was unreal,” said Foerst, who is the daughter of Ray Kinsland, the legendary Cherokee coach and administrator who has the football stadium named after him.
“The win was surreal, and I haven’t even landed back on the planet yet. I was raised on football games, and I’ve been a Braves’ fan all my life, so this is just the greatest thing.”
Foerst’s favorite moment was post game, when the players completed the handshakes with the Mitchell team and turned to salute their fans.
“It was an incredible moment. We have awesome fans, and even when it was evident we were going to win, nobody left early to beat the traffic and head home,” she said.
“When the boys turned around to face us and everyone was cheering, it was just an incredible moment and incredible feeling.”
Plans are in place to hopefully duplicate that euphoria on Saturday if the Braves win it all.
Thursday is a day of celebration in Cherokee, beginning with the cheerleaders and players’ walkthrough at the elementary school wearing their jerseys, and then on to a community pep rally at 2 p.m., followed by a sendoff for the team as it departs for Raleigh around 5 p.m.
“Facebook is blowing up, with people saying “I’ve got my reservation, have you?” said Foerst.
“We’re so excited about our Braves.”