From the scrapheap of completing a 3-33 record in conference play just two years ago, Cherokee High football has risen to become a state title finalist.
The Braves’ magical season, led by a splendid multi-talented quarterback, continued Friday night in a most unlikely place.
On the same field where host Mitchell knocked Cherokee out of the playoffs a year ago almost to the day with a 31-point rout, the Braves exacted revenge with a 42-28 win in the 1A Western Regional championship game.
The victory allowed Cherokee (13-1) to advance to the state 1A title game Dec. 9 in Raleigh, where the Braves will vie for their first state championship in football vs. North Duplin (14-0).
Tye Mintz did a little bit of everything, including a 329-total yard, five-touchdown effort which included the Braves’ senior QB scoring on a pass, a run and a reception – and all that was just the first half.
Mintz, nearing the 10,000-yard career mark in total offense, ran for 150 yards and three scores, passed for 179 yards and a touchdown and also caught a TD pass.
And while most of the overflow crowd of more than 3000 left quietly and disappointed after seeing their Mountaineers (12-2) lose at home for just the second time in their last 25 home games, the Cherokee fans who filled the visiting bleachers loudly celebrated their program’s first trip to the state finals in 39 years.
The game also marked the end of one of the greatest careers in WNC history. Mitchell quarterback Ben Young, 47-11 as a starter in four seasons, had 286 yards of offense to pass the 11,000-mark in total offense.
His 11,235 total yards of offense leaves his second in the history of WNC football to Mountain Heritage quarterback Trey Robinson, who also had his career end Friday night in a 27-20 loss to Reidsville in the 2A Western Regional final.
Robinson finished with 12,913 yards of offense.
Mintz, who produced 433 yards of offense and seven scores last week (including 363 yards rushing with six TDs) now has 9880 career yards of total offense.
His five touchdowns of production increased his career TD total to 106, third best in WNC history behind Robinson (170) and Young (143).
The Braves overcame two early interceptions and took advantage of two Mitchell turnovers to take a 21-7 halftime lead.
Mintz threw interceptions on the Braves’ first two possession s but rallied his team to a trio of second-quarter touchdowns.
He scored on a 4-yard run, threw a 17-yard TD pass to Holden Straughan and caught a 1-yard pass from Straughan on a wide receiver reverse play two seconds before halftime.
That play was set up by Cade Mintz’s interception of Young and 60-yard return down to the Mitchell 1-yard line.
Earlier in the period Young was three yards from scoring when he fumbled, and Cherokee recovered.
The Braves also turned that turnover into points after Tye Mintz completed a 49-yard pass to his younger brother Cade, a big play that preceded Straughan’s TD reception.
Mitchell had taken a 7-0 lead midway through the first period after Brody Smith intercepted a Mintz pass. Five plays later Smith scored on a 16-yard run.
Cherokee, which had 475 yards of offense (283 on the ground) built its lead up to 42-14 in the second half and never let the Mountaineers closer than the final margin.
Mitchell had defeated Cherokee five straight times over the last four seasons by an average margin of 31 points, including a 45-14 victory last season in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.
The struggling Braves were in the midst of their six-year, 3-33 stumble through the Smoky Mountain Conference from 2010-2015 when coach Kent Briggs took over in 2014.
In four seasons Briggs, who is battling prostate cancer, has turned around a program that has won 19 of its last 21 games over two seasons.
Reynolds was the other WNC team to advance to the state championship round, beating Sun Valley 28-25 in the 3AA Western Regional final at Dalton Stadium.
The Rockets (14-1) broke a 25-25 tie on Ethan Blakey’s 30-yard field goal midway through the fourth period. Quarterback Alex Flinn had over 400 yards of total offense for Reynolds, including a 68-yard TD pass to I’dre Bell and a 24-yard scoring run.
Reynolds will play New Hanover (14-1) Dec. 9 at Wallace Wade Stadium in search of the program’s fourth state title. The Rockets won 4-A crowns in 1999, 2002 and 2009.
Reidsville stretched its winning streak to 31 in a row by getting past Mountain Heritage (13-1). The Cougars cut the deficit to 21-20 in the fourth period on Robinson’s second TD run but failed to take the lead on a two-point conversion effort.
Host Mount Airy used big plays (five touchdowns of 45 or more yards) to get past defending state champion Murphy 49-35.
Murphy quarterback Joey Curry threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns, tosses of 7 and 6 yards to Travis Seabolt.