Officially, it wasn’t the play that put Cherokee in front for good. Billy Osborn’s 37-yard pass to Caden Burti was the touchdown that erased the early 6-0 deficit.
But fellow junior Darren Hazen’s 69-yard run in the first quarter put an early exclamation point on a stunning season opener for the Chiefs at Washington Township on Sept. 6. Hazen took the ball from Osborn on what looked like an ordinary running play and found a hole, and then another, and broke down the sideline.
It was one of four touchdowns Cherokee would score in the opening quarter.
“It’s a lot of fun, just flying down the sidelines and seeing the student section cheering,” Hazen said.
Fun likely wasn’t a word used much a year ago within the Chiefs program.
Normally one of the most consistent winners in South Jersey football, Cherokee didn’t win its first game in 2018 until November, in the season finale against Seneca. The Chiefs lost eight straight games to begin last season.
Last week, the Chiefs scored more points in the opening quarter (28) than they scored in any single game in 2018 prior to the aforementioned 41-25 victory over Seneca. By halftime, they beat that number, too, taking a 44-6 lead into the Washington Township locker rooms.
Needless to say, Cherokee, which has a date with district rival Shawnee for its home opener on Friday, is planning to turn things around in 2019 after a forgettable 2018.
“I think pretty much right after the season ended we knew that wasn’t the expectations of what we want for the season, so I think right away everyone’s mentality was that we had to step it up to be better than that and we worked super hard (going forward),” Hazen said.
“Last year was a shocker for everyone in the town and us,” added Osborn. “We decided that we cannot let that happen again. We (worked) during the entire offseason and (the season opener) was just a show of our work, all of the hard work and preparation since the end of last year.”
Rosters change each season in high school sports, sometimes dramatically with graduation, so it was probably unwise to assume the Chiefs would struggle again to the level they did a year ago. One of the roster additions for 2019 is Osborn, a 6-foot-4 quarterback who missed all of his sophomore season.
Osbrorn threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in the Chiefs’ win at Washington Township. Not a bad first game back after fracturing the growth plate in his right elbow two summers ago.
“I threw it out in a summer practice,” he said. “They call it Little Leaguer’s elbow, it happens to 12-year-olds. I was about to be 16, but I grew a lot in the last couple of years.”
The Chiefs will continue to turn to Osborn, fellow juniors Hazen (two rushing touchdowns vs. Township), Burti (two receiving touchdowns vs. Township), and Darnell Hightower.
Cherokee has made the postseason 27 times since the NJSIAA introduced sectional playoffs in 1974. They’ve appeared in 15 championship games in that time and won 10, including five times since 2005, all under former coach P.J. Mehigan, who retired following the 2017 season.
Brian Glatz, a Cherokee alum and one of Mehigan’s long-time assistants, clearly wants to re-establish the Chiefs as a program other teams circle on their calendars before each season. It’s premature to say Cherokee is back on track, but it’s difficult to look at the first game of 2019 and not be impressed with the athleticism and mentality of a team eager to change the script after last season.
“Last year, if you go back and look at our games, we battled. We competed, each and every week,” Glatz said. “Go back to St. Augustine. We had 21 first downs and they had 20. Now they made some big plays and it cost us. But our team wasn’t far off. You’re never as good as you think and you’re never as bad as you think. So it’s a matter of keep working, and keep working to get better.”
The Chiefs will be tested regularly with one of the toughest schedules in South Jersey. Before traveling to St. Augustine next month, Cherokee has Shawnee, Winslow Township, Rancocas Valley, Millville and Williamstown, five teams that combined to go 37-21 with two sectional championships last season.
“Every single game is really important,” Osborn said. “Great competition helps out in your favor, 100 percent. I enjoy the challenge and the competition.”
“That’s the beauty of it,” Glatz said of an unforgiving schedule. “Every week is a big week. We look forward to it. At the same time … it really comes down to us focusing on ourselves and continuing to improve on that.”
Cherokee certainly had momentum in its favor following the season-opening win, with a positive vibe flowing through the post-game huddle and the trek toward the team bus.
“I’m feeling good going into next week and the rest of the games we have for the rest of the season,” Hazen said. “The competitiveness of our team, the brotherhood and the bonds we have – we’re all working together to execute well.”