MARIETTA – A dominating defensive effort in the second half propelled Walton to a 25-21 victory against Cherokee on Friday at Raider Valley.
The Raiders (5-4, 3-1 Region 4AAAAAAA) held the Warriors (6-3, 2-2) to 104 yards of total offense in the second half, and they had two crucial interceptions in the fourth quarter.
“We have been in a lot of ballgames like that this year and, unfortunately, we kept being on the short side of the stick. I just told the kids at halftime that we needed to just go out there and execute, and if we go out there and execute, we will go out and win this ballgame,” Walton coach Daniel Brunner said. “I told them I was waiting for players to step up and make plays and they did. That was just exciting.”
With the win, Walton joined a three-way tie for the region lead with Etowah and Roswell. The Raiders can clinch the region title with a season-ending win over Woodstock, coupled with an Etowah win over Roswell.
Cherokee, which will close with last-place Lassiter next week, clinched a state playoff berth with Woodstock’s loss to Roswell.
Following a 4-yard rushing touchdown from Zak Rozsman that cut the Cherokee lead to 21-18 with 10:47 to play in the game, Marcus Allen intercepted AJ Swann to set up his team on the Cherokee 46-yard line.
Rozsman and the offense responded with a five-play scoring drive that gave Walton its first lead since halfway through the first quarter. Rozsman found Rawson MacNeill in the corner of the end zone on a fade pass for the 25-21 lead.
Four plays from scrimmage later, Austin Eldred intercepted Swann for Walton’s third interception of the game. Kenny Djaha, KD Stokes and Rozsman gained 49 yards on the ground to bleed the final 5:05 off the clock, and a roughing-the-kicker penalty ended the game.
“(Swann) is a tremendous quarterback, and we thought we were going to have some chances when he put the ball up in the air,” Brunner said. “We did and the kids executed and made the plays. Sometimes, players make the plays, and it is bigger than what us coaches do. Those were two big picks in the second half.”
On the flip side, the Raiders gained 233 of their 350 total offensive yards in the second half.
“Our offense came out and played tremendously in the second half,” Brunner said.
Jeb Carriere started the interception party on the Warriors’ first drive and put his team on the Cherokee 19-yard line 51 seconds into the game. Djaha punched it in from 1 yard out for the 7-0 Walton lead with 7:58 left in the first quarter.
Cherokee evened the score at 7-7 with 5:50 to go in the first quarter on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Swann to Adarrius Harshaw. The teams traded empty possessions until Swann found Brady Bocherer for a 21-yard touchdown pass with 41 seconds left in the first half for a 14-7 Cherokee lead.
Brunner said he felt a different energy from his team in the second half and said he knew his team did not want to lose two straight close games after last week’s overtime loss to Roswell.
“We knew this region was going to be a tough deal every week. I am just proud of our guys for just not giving up after we had a tough one over there in Roswell,” Brunner said. “The way they responded from that was just tremendous. I am so proud of how they responded. They came back, worked their tails off, worked harder than they have all season long, were hungry and it showed tonight.”
The Warriors gained 65 of their 104 offensive yards in the second half on their lone scoring drive of the half. Landon Ergle found Swann in the corner of the end zone on a trick play to push the Cherokee lead to 21-10 with 2:28 left in the third quarter. The Warriors gained a mere 39 yards the rest of the game.
“I am just so proud of this group of guys and the coaching staff,” Brunner said. “We have stuck together through some hard times this year, and I am just proud of how they finished tonight.”