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Pride of a nation: Cherokee wins first-ever state football championship

Pride-filled pandemonium reigned in Cherokee Saturday night, Dec. 8, as the victorious Cherokee Braves football team returned to town. Police cars and fire trucks from the Cherokee Police Department and Jackson County Sheriff’s Department flashed their lights and blared their horns in an escort that had met the buses all the way back at Balsam, and fireworks filled the air as fans already tired from the five-hour drive back from Raleigh cheered till they were hoarse.

All this because — for the first time in the history of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — the Cherokee Braves football players were state champions.

“Everybody was very emotional,” Coach Kent Briggs said of the win’s aftermath. “I think all of us were crying, just about, and so excited that we’d done something historic for Cherokee. We knew that this would be a moment that would last in our minds forever. How great is that? I think I underestimated it.”

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Excitement had been running high in Cherokee for days in the week leading up to state championships, with multiple Tribal Council members using their time during a Dec. 7 meeting to offer congratulations and well wishes to the young athletes.

“I know that it takes a special group of kids and a team to make it to state, and I just want to say I hope they bring it home, and I know that they will,” said Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown. “Just to get there after 17 weeks of sacrificing — a lot of people don’t understand what sacrifice a football player gives to get to state.”

Briggs, too, is well aware of how special the current group of seniors is. Briggs is now in his fourth year as coach, and they’re the kids who have been on the team in throughout his tenure with the Braves.

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“Our best players were really our freshmen, so I played a lot of freshmen,” Briggs said of his first year coaching. “A lot of these seniors are four-year starters. They got stronger, faster, bigger, more experienced every year, and we’ve added players to the roster over the years.”

Going into the season, everybody knew it would be a year to remember.

“Those four of us that played together as freshmen, we knew once we was all seniors we was going to do something special,” said senior Holden Straughan, who plays linebacker and wide receiver. “But we all thought we was just going to win conference or beat Murphy. We didn’t think anything about winning state or anything like that.”

But, as the season progressed, they did think about it. Until, according to Briggs, “anything less than a state championship would have been a big disappointment for our team.”

As the game against undefeated North Duplin High School — whose students hail from rural Duplin County in eastern North Carolina — began at the Carter-Finley Stadium at N.C. State University in Raleigh, such an achievement looked anything but certain.

“They controlled the ball the first half,” Briggs admitted.

But the Braves defense held off the North Duplin Rebels to maintain a 0-0 score until, midway through the second quarter, North Duplin scored a touchdown and an extra point to lead 7-0. Cherokee couldn’t get even until a completed pass earned a touchdown late in the third quarter.

The Braves didn’t panic, however.

“I just knew we was going to come back and execute, and I knew if we executed we were going to win, so I wasn’t too worried,” Straughan said.

Briggs was thinking the same thing.

“I just knew once we scored we’d be OK, and that held to be true,” he said.

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It certainly did. After that third-quarter score, Cherokee came back in the fourth quarter to score another touchdown, a 51-yard rush from quarterback Tye Mintz that brought the score to 13-7. Then another rushing touchdown boosted the score to 19-7, and finally a two-point conversion clinched Cherokee’s state title with a final score of 21-7.

“It was definitely my greatest athletic experience I’ve ever been around, just seeing all those kids play so hard and work so hard for something and to go out there and make their dream come true,” Briggs said.

It’s a new week, the state victory days in the past. But for both Briggs and Straughan, it still doesn’t feel quite real.

“I just feel like it was another game,” Straughan said. “It really hasn’t hit me yet, even two days after.”

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