The Marlton, NJ high school program also sports a big, talented offensive line and a stingy defense– the result is a 5-0 start
For the Cherokee High School football team, the 2019 season was a series highs and lows.
The Chiefs got off to a 3-1 start, then lost four consecutive games including three West Jersey - American League match-ups.
Then Cherokee, led by then junior quarterback Billy Osborn, his offensive line and a bend-but-not break defense, reeled off three straight playoff wins to capture the Central Group 5 title.
That run was followed by two losses to end the season. The first defeat was to Seneca, 21-14 on Thanksgiving Day.
The Chiefs treated this game as an exhibition, removing their starters at the half to avoid injuries and be at full strength for when Cherokee played Williamstown in the Central/South Group 5 Regional Championship game on Dec. 7.
Cherokee lost that game 30-14. Osborn was 14 of 22 for just 81 yards. He threw two touchdown passes and had no interceptions.
The Chiefs (6-7) were never within two scores and generated just 112 yards of total offense.
Osborn finished the season with 12 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in 13 games.
The 2020 season has been quite different, not just for Cherokee High School, but for all sports at all levels across the country.
As we all know, the COVID-19 corona-virus has had a powerful impact on every level of society including high school education and sports.
THERE WOULD SPORTS AFTER ALL IN 2020
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) decided to allow fall sports to take place on a limited basis.
For football, teams were allowed to schedule six regular season games plus two post-season games, but no playoffs or championships.
The Chiefs are off to a 4-0 start this fall and Osborn is having an outstanding season.
But for most of the spring, it was up in the air whether there would be a 2020 season at all.
“The uncertainty of the offseason was kind of a killer,” Osborn said during a recent phone interview. “It was weird for a lot of it. We didn't have confidence that we were going to play. It was kind of a bummer going into my senior year.”
Osborn said he and his teammates kept the faith alive that they would play.
To see that Osborn was right, all you had to do was look at some of the players' social media sites. You can see Cherokee players working out in their driveways, cul de sac's, and basements in order to train in the event Murphy and NJSIAA would allow high schools to play sports. Their faith was rewarded.
“With our senior leadership and with the underclassman following along, we prepared very well and did what we could do,” Osborn said. “Whether that was working out at home...in my house we didn't have a gym setup, but then during the quarantine we got a lot of weights and I was able to lift at home. I know a lot of guys did the same.”
THE CHIEFS DEVELOPED A WINNING ATTITUDE EARLY Cherokee started the season with three blowout wins over Pennsauken, Woodrow Wilson and the Hun School.
The two touchdowns scored on the Chiefs in those three games came after the game was decided.
“Our defense is playing lights out,” Osborn said. “Out first-team defense has yet to allow a touchdown.”
Before the Chiefs game against long-time rival Shawnee, the defending South Group 4 and South-Central Group 4 Champion, Osborn talked about the difference in his game now compared to last season.
“I think the difference, for me personally, last year was when I faced adversity, I didn't think I was confident as a player as I am now,” said Osborn, who reports he is 6-foot-4, 195 pounds now. “I think having a year of experience, plus I've gained a lot of size since last year paid off. I worked out a lot in the offseason, throwing-wise. A lot of it's confidence. My teammates also trust me. We all have great trust in each other and in our preparation. This year is the hardest I've prepared ever, for football, with the conditioning we do.”
Football training guru Marcus Hammond of Next Level Greats sports training facility, said Cherokee had about a dozen players in one of his passing camps and he could see how Osborn and the Chiefs were coming together.
“Billy did NLG with about 12 of his teammates,” Hammond said via email. “We kept them all on the same 7on7 team and they ran Cherokee's plays and terminology. That alone helped their chemistry. But it made his understanding of their playbook crystal clear.”
Osborn also talked about Cherokee's running game and offensive line.
The Chiefs feature Brandon “Bam” Boria (472 yards on 58 carries, 5TDs plus two receiving TDs over four games) but have a group of runners who have performed well all season.
“Our running game is awesome,” Osborn said. “Our running backs are working well. We have Bam Boria getting most of the workload, then we have Dhonte Johnson, Darren Hazen and we even put (WR) Ty Bartrum back there. It works really well. Our line does an amazing job at clearing holes for these guys. It sets up the pass so well. It sets a good tempo for the game and makes it easier to pass.”
The Chiefs have a veteran, stout line that is proficient at pass blocking and opening holes for the ball carriers.
“We have four seniors that came back to start on our line,” Osborn said. “I know Bam, he agrees with me completely that they (O-line) are so under-credited because they are doing some great things.”
Osborn talked about a play that remains in his memory from earlier in the season.
“There was one play where I had a screen pass to my wide receiver Caden Burti, and ten yards down the field, Caden looked like he was being tackled,” Osborn said. “Then Josh Toner, our left guard, came across the field, pushed [the defender] out off his tackle and then Caden got like 15 extra yards off of that.”
Some top-notch college football programs must have seen that play and many more by Toner, who is headed to perennial FCS national championship and Colonial Athletic Association contender James Madison University on a football scholarship.
The 6-foot-3, 320-pound two-way lineman passes every eye test for a big man who can move.
Toner is joined by Matt Ellis (6-3, 300), Austin Angradi (5-10, 230), Ryan Doyle (6-0, 245) and junior fire plug Aiden “Gus” Geisenheimer (6-0, 265).
“He's a junior, he's the youngest guy on the line,” Osborn said of Geisenheimer. “And this is his first year starting...and he's doing a great job.”
CHIEFS STAGE DRAMATIC COMEBACK AGAINST SHAWNEE No one on the Chiefs roster was looking at the Renegades record of 0-3 and believed the game would be anything like their first three games.
Shawnee has struggled out of the gate in the past only to catch fire as the season unfolded.
Tim Gushue is just too good of a head coach.
The game, held at Shawnee's field, was tight throughout with Cherokee holding a 10-7 lead at the half.
Led by junior quarterback Matt Welsey and two Cherokee turnovers – one on a strip-sack fumble by Osborn, and the other on a fumble by special teams – Shawnee took a 14-10 lead in the third quarter.
Osborn came back hitting wide receiver Ty Bartrum with a 19-yard (one-handed) touchdown pass to give Cherokee a 17-14 lead.
Welsey answered with a 14-yard touchdown run to make the score 21-17 with 8:51 left in the fourth.
After neither team moved the ball, Cherokee took over at the Shawnee 41-yard line with 3:01 left in the fourth quarter.
On the first play of the drive, Osborn threw his first interception of the season to Renegades defensive back Avery Cohen.
Osborn got a chance for redemption after Cherokee’s defense stood strong to give their offense the ball back with 1:49 left in the quarter.
Two big back-to-back passes by Osborn – both to Chima Opara - set up Boria to score on a 10-yard run with 45 seconds left in the game.
The Chiefs defense kept Welsey from pulling off a miracle rebound and escaped with a 24-21 win.
After the game Osborn thanked his teammates for picking him up after committing two turnovers.
"I have great teammates that pick me up," said Osborn who finished 9 of 19 for 190 yards, 2 TDs and an interception. "If I make mistakes my teammates pick me up. So hats off to them. I try to keep my head up, it was looking tough. But everyone, including myself, stayed at it. We were hoping we'd get the ball back and be able to score. And that's what we did."
Shawnee, regardless of its record, is always going to be tough. The rivalry is real and eternal. Osborn talked about that.
"I was saying to my teammates before the game,, don't look at their record," Osborn said. "This is going to be out toughest game so far and it ended up being that. It was a great game. Everyone battled so hard."
Defensive coordinator Ryan Walsh, who is conducting practices and managing games under the direction of head coach Brian Glatz, who reports say has nearly completed treatment for lymphoma – talked about the Chiefs comeback.
"I'm proud of the fact that they were able to hang tight," Walsh said. "I know our kids are mentally tough. These seniors went through a brutal schedule as sophomores that helped them win a championship as juniors. And even though they haven't faced that much adversity this year, I know that they're mentally tough. They're used to the battles, they're used to coming back. We wouldn't expect anything less.
"But it is a good feeling to get [a close game] out of the way, considering what we did the first three weeks."
Walsh talked about what Osborn brings to the table this season.
"Billy's a great leader," Walsh said. "He loves football. He loves talking football. He went from being a good player last year to now being a great player and a great leader. He leads by example. And the offense follows his leadership.”
WHAT IS NEXT FOR CHEROKEE?
Toner talked about the chemistry this team has accumulated since last season. The Chiefs have no idea what two teams they will face in the postseason.
"I'm always talking to the guys to keep your heads up," Toner said. "We're a family. We've always got each others' back. We're always talking...'keep your heads up, keep your heads up.' If there's a bad play, keep your heads up. Next play is the best play. They're the things the coaches tell us. These are traditional things that guys have been saying for years. It works. We fought like a family through adversity, which we haven't had through these first few games. So, I'm happy."
Toner talked about blocking for Osborn and Boria.
"Billy, Bam, these guys do a great job," Toner said. "Our scheme is really good."
Both Toner and Osborn talked about not getting down even though they will not play for a formal Group title.
"We're happy though. We didn't think we were going to play before the season so we're grateful to play this game." Toner said
What is the one thing Osborn will remember from 2020? The young man said he and his teammates know how lucky they are to have eight games to play.
They know states such as Illinois, Delaware and California postponed all fall sports. That states like Pennsylvania are a mess with some leagues playing, some leagues not, some leagues playing limited schedules.
“I'm extremely blessed to be able to step on the field.” said Osborn, who is talking to college programs ranging from FCS to D3. “And everyone feels the same way. Everyone thinks this is a great opportunity. “But the one thing I'm probably going to remember the most is playing my last season with all my good friends and my true family,” continued Osborn, who lists DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy as his favorite Eagles and Carson Wentz as the QB he most admires. “I've been playing with these guys since I can remember. All the way back to youth football and seeing my class just build together and not stop improving and getting better, working better together. The fact that this coronavirus hasn't impacted us at all. When I look back at this season, I'm not even going to think about it, COVID and only having six (regular season) games. I'm just going to think about having a great time with teammates I've been playing with for a long time.” * Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii