From March Madness to April showers, spring is a season of change, excitement, and—for two local athletic programs—history-making championships. This spring, Cherokee County celebrated the crowning of a new state champion and brought a storied program back to the center of attention.
Though many local students are looking ahead to graduation and long summer vacations, the impact of the River Ridge Lady Knights and Cherokee Warriors basketball teams will not soon be forgotten.
A New Champion
Cherokee County has been a wealth of girls’ basketball talent. With nine state titles by local girls’ basketball teams, fans across the state have taken notice of the dominant play found on the hardwood here. Despite recent playoff runs, it’s been more than fifteen years since a county team raised a championship banner. Everything changed when the River Ridge Lady Knights made school history by defeating the defending champions, Lovejoy Lady Wildcats, 68-50 in the 2023 Georgia High School Association Dr. Ralph Swearngin Basketball State Championship 6A girls’ division game on March 10 in Macon, Georgia.
Both teams ran through their opponents in the playoffs by winning all their games by double digits, setting up a rematch of last year’s quarterfinals during which Lovejoy knocked River Ridge out of the tournament.
Led by senior point guard Mataya Gayle with twenty-five points, River Ridge was able to outscore the Lovejoy team, which came into the championship game with an average point differential of +20.
River Ridge also got notable production from two sophomores: Kayla Cleaveland with fifteen points and eleven from Sophia Pearl. Kayla shares that her biggest takeaway from the season is chemistry. “I have learned how important chemistry is for a team. I think one of our best assets as a team was that we all played for each other and not as individuals.” Kayla also shares her favorite memory from the championship is running out on the court during the big game with the lights dimmed and the crowd cheering.
From The Ground Up
The Lady Knights were guided through the playoffs by Head Coach Jason Taylor. River Ridge Athletic Director Coach David Dyer says, “Coach Taylor is one of a few faculty members remaining from the opening of River Ridge and I believe the only head coach in his original position. I applaud and appreciate his efforts and patience in building this program. He truly did it from the ground up. He has a true understanding of what it means to be a high school coach.”
The excitement of the season’s success reached far beyond the gym’s four walls. The community support behind this team meant everything, Coach Dyer says. “The River Ridge community showed up in large numbers in the Final Four to support this team at the University of West Georgia [and filled] up our side at the Macon Coliseum for the State Championship. Our school is fortunate and grateful to have the community support we have.”
Students, faculty, and alumni will long remember the feeling of achievement and respect for this season’s team for bringing home a historic win. Coach Dyer explains the season’s impact throughout the River Ridge community: “It was incredibly important for our entire athletic department, for all our student athletes and coaches.” He adds, “It was important for our River Ridge alumni, all the student athletes that competed during our lean years, as well as our recent graduates who laid the foundation and were a part of creating our current athletic culture over the last few years. It was an awesome night for the Knight Nation and River Ridge community.”
Back in the Spotlight
Cherokee High School has a long and storied athletic history. As the oldest high school in the county, more than fifty years of student athletes have paved the way for today’s program.
Recently the Warriors boys’ basketball program has been a staple in the playoffs with a four-year streak coming into 2023. With momentum building in the program, many fans thought this could be a breakout year, but no one could predict a championship game appearance.
The state championship appearance marked the end of a forty-year drought. Having reached the state title only one other time in school history, in 1982, the team’s success sent waves of excitement through the entire community. Each step of the way, through the Elite Eight and Final Four, the anticipation grew.
Cherokee faced Wheeler three times during the regular season before the state title game, of which Wheeler won all three. The Warriors quietly cut through West Forsyth and Berkmar at home before facing off against the Carrollton Trojans in the Elite Eight. With a four-point win over the Trojans, the Warriors punched a ticket to the Final Four to face the Norcross Blue Devils at the Convocation Center at Georgia State University. With an overtime win, the Warriors were set up for a rematch against Wheeler.
Cherokee entered the game as an underdog but found a way to keep the score close. Senior guard Braylin Giddens led the Warriors with seventeen points, followed by sharpshooter Cameron Pope with twelve.
Athletic Director Jeremy Adams reflects on the importance of this season. “It was an amazing experience not only for our athletic department and school as a whole but also the Canton community. It was truly incredible to see everyone unite behind this team, and we have seen it impact our spring sports as well, as they have fed off the success. As the saying goes, ‘Winning begets winning.’”
The difference maker for the success in recent seasons has been Head Coach Joe Veihman. In just two seasons as head coach, Veihman has created a new culture and ignited a new spark with the Warriors. The primary tenet that keeps the team driven is R.E.A.L., an acronym that serves as a reminder to the team to be Relational, Enthusiastic, Authentic, and have Leadership. For his exceptional leadership Coach Veihman was recognized as the GPB Sports Head Coach of the Year.
Athletic Director Adams shares, “The best thing about Coach V. is he is consistent every day. He is one of our top teachers. He loves kids and is an incredible family man. When he talks about R.E.A.L., it is truly not just a saying, but part of the everyday culture he has established.”
As with the other county teams, the support behind the Warriors was inspiring. Fans and families united to send the team off to each game and gathered en masse at local spots, including The Mill on Etowah, Dive Southern Coastal Kitchen, and Stout’s Growlers, to watch as the Warriors gave it their all for the state title.
Athletic Director Adams continues, “The support of the community was unbelievable. From David Booth buying hundreds and hundreds of tickets to the numerous parents and businesses that made sure every detail was covered; it was simply incredible. The pictures from The Mill on Etowah on the night of the game just left me speechless. It was incredibly emotional to see the amount of red and black that followed us to Macon. The workers asked if we left anyone in Canton.”
Winning is infectious in sports, and both River Ridge and Cherokee have enjoyed the momentum of increased athletic success recently. Both schools have also established themselves as emerging baseball and softball programs, which is no small feat in Cherokee County.
Heading into the fall the Cherokee Warriors football team holds the longest playoff streak (five years running) out of all six county schools. The River Ridge Knights have also found success on the football field, making the playoffs in two of the last three years.
One thing is for sure: an evening devoted to watching Cherokee County sports is an evening well spent.
CHEROKEE WARRIORS ROSTER
00 DASTIN HART PF Senior
01 CAMERON POPE G Senior
02 TAYDEN OWENS PG Senior
03 HAYDEN DARKO PG Sophomore
05 MASON BENNETT SG, PG, SF Senior
10 PEYTON ALLEN SG Sophomore
11 HUDSON MOORE PG, SG Freshman
15 CAYDEN WALSH SF Sophomore
20 HAMPTON COX SG Freshman
22 NATE SPEAKS C, PF Senior
24 LAWRENCE SANFORD SG Sophomore
30 BRAYLIN GIDDENS PG Senior
32 SAMMY ERICSON SG Sophomore
33 BEN WEITZENKORN SF Junior
RIVER RIDGE LADY KNIGHTS ROSTER
03 SOPHIA PEARL G Sophomore
05 SIERRA REID G Senior
10 OCTAVIA HALL F Senior
11 MATAYA GAYLE G Senior
14 MAKAYLA ROBERSON G Freshman
15 AVERY GAW G Junior
20 NIARA GAYLE G Sophomore
22 JASMINE LONG F Senior
23 ALLIE SWEET F Junior
24 KAYLA CLEAVELAND G/F Sophomore
25 LILLY KRUTZ F Sophomore
30 AYANNA BLANCO G Senior
32 KYLA CANTEY G Freshman
33 JOY TCHAMABE F Sophomore
44 ALYSSA FARMER F Senior
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Will is the Digital Media Director for Tri-State Communications, the parent company of Enjoy Cherokee Magazine, WLJA Radio 101.1 FM, and WPGY Radio 93.7 FM. He is known as the voice of Friday night football in Cherokee County as he leads the WLJA Sports Broadcast team and hosts the Cherokee County Football Blitz podcast.