ATHENS, Tenn. — Strong-willed junior Jalen Hunt added another chapter to a storybook football season for the McMinn County Cherokees.
Hunt rushed for 380 yards on 29 carries, scored five times and made a leaping interception at his own goal line to close Friday's 44-34 Region 2-6A victory over Bradley Central.
"What a game Jalen played," Bo Cagle said of his running back, who set a school record for single-game rushing yards and is now up to 1,539 on 150 carries this season. "He carried us offensively. We were also short a couple of safeties this week. He played every defensive play and was on kickoff team. We had to really lean on him to get this win."
Facing fourth-and-short from the Bears' 47-yard line with the Cherokees up three points with 1:08 left, Hunt blasted off down the left sideline to score. He also had touchdown runs of 36, 19, 74 and 61 yards.
McMinn County (9-1, 5-1), which clinched second place in the region and home-field advantage to start the playoffs with the win, now takes aim at its first postseason victory since beating Bradley Central twice in a row in a 10-win 2012 season.
"My offensive line blocked really well for me," Hunt said. "I told my team to keep pushing at halftime. I knew if we played better defensively and made tackles and big plays, we were going to win."
Led by senior linebacker Jalen Sharp and a fierce defensive line, the Cherokees overcame a 27-13 halftime deficit.
McMinn County forced three turnovers, which included a jarring hit that popped the ball out for Sharp to recover right after a 26-yard field goal by Federico Banuelos gave the home team a 30-27 lead with 6:05 left in the fourth quarter. Parker Manney extended the lead to double digits with a quarterback sneak with 4:11 to go.
"It's a blessing to finish off the season like this," Sharp said. "Our defensive line really made some big plays in the second half. I believed in my guys from the very beginning. I knew we could get it done this season even with the small numbers we have."
Bradley Central (7-3, 4-2), which finished third in the region, did not score in the second half until Tray Curry broke free for a 44-yard touchdown pass from Javin Burke with 2:22 left to cut the deficit to 37-34. Curry finished with 148 total yards (103 receiving, 45 rushing) and three touchdowns.
Hunt's big night ended with him and his teammates celebrating the program's first playoff berth since 2016.
"We haven't been this far in a while," Hunt said. "This means a lot. It's the best game I have ever had, and I am really happy for my teammates, too."