It's happened many times this season at Cherokee County High. Star running back Jacob Cornejo, who can also be described as a star linebacker, carries the ball several times in succession and head coach Jacob Kelley pulls him out to take a break.
Admittedly, that occurs throughout football. What generally happens next, though, is not entirely common.
"You look, and he's standing right beside you, not even breathing hard," Kelley said. "You're like, Jacob, are you good, and he's like, 'Yeah, coach, why'd you take me out?"
It also happens on the other side of the football.
"We had one series where I think he toted it 12 times," Kelley said. "He scores, comes off the field, we kick it off, and the defensive coordinator said, 'Is Jacob ready to roll?' and he's standing right beside him."
Truthfully, it's a good thing to have the 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior on the field at all times. He's leading the team in rushing with 2,498 yards and 32 touchdowns. And he's leading the team in tackles with 127. He does both with little fanfare.
"He's the most unselfish player I think I've ever had," Kelley said. "If you have a conversation with him, you're going to say that kid don't talk a lot. And he don't. He's all business."
Business is good for Cornejo and his Cherokee County teammates. The Warriors (12-2) face off against Andalusia (13-1) on Friday morning with the Class 4A title on the line. Kickoff is slated for 11 a.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Cherokee County advanced to the championship game for the first time since beating Jackson, 31-27, in 2009. That 2009 team featured Mr. Football Coty Blanchard at quarterback. The Warriors also advanced to the title game and lost in 1984, 2005 and 2008. When Kelley arrived in the spring of 2019, the program wasn't championship game-ready.
"My first year, we were Region 6, same region as Oneonta," Kelley said. "They beat us so bad I think the coach was taking a knee in the third quarter. Coach [Phil] Phillips he's a great coach. I have a lot of respect for him. He didn't run it up. He could have scored 100. When I first got here, we weren't very good when we got put into a fistfight, but we still won some games."
Last week, the Warriors advanced to the championship game by outslugging a physical Oneonta team, 42-21, in the semifinals.
Kelley directed his team into the playoffs for the third consecutive season, losing in the first round in 2020 and the second round last season. The Warriors played in the south bracket both of those seasons. This year, the Warriors are in the north bracket, which leads to a bit of the unknown.
"First three rounds were teams that we've never played in the history of the school," Kelley said.
For the coaching staff, that meant looking ahead and preparing for what turned out to be wins over Corner, West Morgan and Randolph. For the players, though, Kelley took a different approach.
"These kids have no ability to think ahead," Kelley said. "A long-term goal in a modern teenager is as absent as money in my bank account. It just ain't there. We dissect it to a daily thing. We do things on a daily basis to be successful."
They've done that. The Warriors won four playoff games by a combined 166-80, and no margin has been fewer than 14 points. Now, they come to the end of a special season. For Kelley, though, it's the end of a special four years.
"When I first got here, these seniors were 8th graders," Kelley said. "They were the first ones that I had a meeting with when I first got here. I went over to the middle school and met with those guys. It's super cool, super gratifying. I can't really talk about it because I get emotional. I couldn't talk about it after the game. They're just a special bunch. They're so much fun to coach. We have a great time. Throughout the year, when it got to the point of us winning a regional championship, I told them, 'Y'all are my first class, and I want to send y'all out region champions.' That was really, really cool, but we got on a roll in the playoffs and have been playing better and better. And here we are, game 15, we have a chance to write our own story, that will live on forever."
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