EVESHAM – In a season filled with so many different and difficult challenges, the Cherokee High School football team finished the same way they played.
The Chiefs fought right down to the final play.
After dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and watching their head coach Brian Glatz battle lymphoma, Cherokee agreed to play one of the top teams in the state, a Non-Public Group 4 powerhouse St. Joseph Regional of Montvale.
Coming on the heels of a heart-wrenching overtime loss to sister school Lenape, the Chiefs fell behind by 20 points in the first quarter before storming back to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
The ending wasn’t what Cherokee wanted as the Green Knights game back to capture a wild 36-35 victory.
While the record books will show Cherokee finished its 2020 season with consecutive losses and a 5-2 record, it doesn’t show the character of its players and coaching staff.
“Just the way the kids responded to so many things this season tells you everything about them,” said Glatz, who underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant to battle lymphoma before returning to the sidelines earlier this month.
“Last week, to lose that overtime game. It was a really difficult loss. They could have sat there and licked their wounds. Not this group. Nah, they didn’t. They came out and fought.
“We were down three scores. What do we do? One play at a time. We keep fighting. It’s a tribute to these guys and the leadership we have. It wasn’t the result we were looking for, but I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Many of the seniors on the group were starters on the Cherokee squad that went 1-8 in 2018. The Chiefs bounced back with a sectional Group 5 championship last fall.
“With my brothers, my best friends, we were able to come out here and do some really special things out here,” said senior quarterback Billy Osborn, who completed 26-of-44 passes for 263 yards and four touchdowns in his final game. “We have a bunch of guys, especially this senior class, that just wanted to win.”
Darnell Hightower was one of starters two years ago and said the team worked for everything it achieved since.
“We were 1-8 when we were sophomores, but that didn’t stop us, we kept putting in the work,” he said. “It hurts that this was our last game, it shouldn’t have ended this way. In our eyes we’re still one of the best teams in New Jersey.”
Hightower has plenty of memories to look back on, including his first touchdown as a sophomore and last season’s championship.
“The championship was crazy,” he said.
Senior Caden Burti, a standout on both sides of the ball, said the Chiefs were a blend of talent and character.
“We had a lot of unfair things thrown at us, but we fought through every one of them,” said Burti, who had two touchdown catches including a 53-yard scoring grab that gave Cherokee a 35-30 lead early in the fourth quarter. “I think we had one of the hardest schedules in New Jersey, but we proved with could stick with anyone and today was another example of that.”
St. Joseph (5-2) entered the game as the fifth-ranked team in the state by Gannett New Jersey, but the Green Knights hadn’t played since Nov. 6 because of a COVID-19 situation.
When Winslow Township had to cancel its game with Cherokee, St. Joseph-Montvale made the call looking to set up the game.
Cherokee accepted the challenge and represented South Jersey extremely well.
“There’s a lot of great competition from this area and a lot of great coaches down here, it gets you ready for a game like this,” Glatz said. “That team over there, they can’t even get a team to play them from their area because no one wants to play them, that’s what their coach said to me, especially a public school.”
St. Joseph-Montvale rumbled out of the gate behind its star running back Audric Estime. The Michigan State commit dazzled the Cherokee defense with an array of eye-popping cutback moves for four touchdowns and 292 yards on 27 carries.
Estime said it felt good just to get back on the field.
“We’ll play anyone, doesn’t matter the distance, we’ll travel two hours away,” he said. “(Cherokee) played their hearts out. We just finished strong, that’s our team, that’s our dedication.
“We just stayed calm. We had to put numbers on the board and that’s what we did.”
St. Joseph-Montvale head coach Dan Marangi wasn’t surprised that Cherokee kept scrapping despite being three scores down in the first quarter.
“Down 20-0, there’s no quit in them, that’s a sign of a great program,” Marangi said about Cherokee.
Cherokee, which played without its star running back Brandon Boria, still produced plenty of offense. Dhante Johnson put the Chiefs on the scoreboard with a 20-yard TD run in the second quarter. Osborn connected on TD strikes to Burti and Mark Phillips before a 3-yard toss to Hightower narrowed the deficit to 30-28 early in the fourth.
Cherokee’s special teams, which had a big blocked punt earlier in the game, successfully converted an onside kick, as Tyler Bartrum pounced on the football. Three plays later, Osborn hit Burti for the go-ahead score.
St. Joseph-Montvale regained the lead with just over eight minutes left and stopped Cherokee’s last possession in the final minute of play.
Many of Cherokee’s players were emotional as Glatz talked to them in the postgame speech.
“Coach Glatz, he’s our warrior,” Burti said. “When he was going through his treatments, he was on his iPad from his hospital bed, working with us. He was with us every step of the way.
Glatz said every day, he’s just “trying to win the day.”
“It makes it easier when you have a community who supports you so much like they do.” he said. “This town, these people, the people who care about our program, our school, it’s overwhelming how much the outpouring is for me, I’m blessed in that way.”
Tom McGurk is a regional sports reporter for the Courier-Post and The Daily Journal, covering South Jersey sports for over 30 years. If you have a sports story that needs to be told, contact him at (856) 486-2420 or email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @McGurkSports. Help support local journalism with a Courier-Post subscription.