Beyond the Scoreboard: Turnarounds at Cherokee, Mitchell keyed by coaching changes

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Beyond the Scoreboard: Turnarounds at Cherokee, Mitchell keyed by coaching changes (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

Four years ago, two local high schools made the decision to hire new football coaches.

The result of that pair of smart moves will be on the field Friday night at Mitchell High, when two teams play for the right to go the state 1A state championship game Dec. 9 in Raleigh.

No. 2 seed Cherokee (12-1) at No. 1 Mitchell (12-1) for the Western Regional championship and a berth at Carter-Finley Stadium next week is a testament to how quickly and successfully a program can get headed in the right direction.

Travise Pitman took over at Mitchell in March, 2014, little more than a month after Kent Briggs did the same at Cherokee.

Pitman is Mitchell born and bred, a 1995 graduate of the high school who came back home after college at Western Carolina and served 14 years as an assistant coach for the Mountaineers before getting his chance to run the program.

Briggs played quarterback at Reynolds High and WCU and also coached with the Catamounts, both as an assistant and head coach.

Both undertook huge rebuilding jobs, with each program coming off 11-loss seasons in 2013.

Pitman inherited a team that had gone 1-10 and 1-11 the previous two years.

“The biggest thing for me was to show some loyalty to the kids and to let them know that playing football could be fun, to find a way to enjoy practice and not hate it,” said Pitman.

“I tried to build a relationship with the coaches and the kids, and I’m pleasantly surprised about what this has turned into.”

What it has turned into is a dominating program that has gone 8-5, 14-2, 13-2 and 12-1 in Pittman’s four years.

The Mountaineers have won a pair of Western Highlands Conference titles, reached the Western Regional finals for a third straight season and played for a state title in 2015.

In the postseason, Pitman’s teams are 9-2 the past three seasons.

Briggs took over a program that had gone 15-42 the previous five years under three different coaches and were in a midst of a stretch in which the Braves would go 3-33 in Smoky Mountain Conference play from 2010-2015.

After going through the growing pains of rebuilding (3-9 in 2014, 4-8 in ’15), Briggs’ efforts to bring the Cherokee community closer together on and off the field began paying off.

Last year’s team won six of their last seven games, including two in the postseason before a 45-14 loss to Mitchell in the quarterfinal round.

This year the Braves have carried on that momentum to the point where they are on a 18-2 run going into Friday’s game.

“It was a matter of getting everybody pulling together, getting on the same page about what we wanted to do and what it took to win football games,” said Briggs, who is 28-23 with the Braves.

Each coach was fortunate that in 2014 a freshman quarterback would begin leading the way to better days.

Ben Young is 47-10 as the starting quarterback with the Mountaineers, not coincidentally Pitman’s career coaching mark with Mitchell.

Tye Mintz played some as a freshman but has flourished as the starter under center for Briggs the past three seasons, while the Braves’ record improved from 4-8 to 9-5 to 12-1.

Young (11,238 yards) and Mintz (9,551 yards) are among just six WNC quarterbacks to surpass 9,000 total yards in a career and rank among the top five all-time in touchdown responsibility.

Young has passed and thrown for a combined 142 TDs to rank second behind Mountain Heritage’s Trey Robinson of Mountain Heritage (165).

Mintz (101 scores) is fifth on that list and has a chance to catch No. 3 Heath Shuler of Swain (104) and Erwin’s Damien Ferguson (103).