In the aftermath of Boys' Latin's 46-13 loss to Annapolis Area Christian in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference championship in 2011, Brandon Cherry was prepared to say goodbye to football forever.
"I was blessed to play from age five to 17," he said. "If it wasn't in God's hands that I would be able to play in college, I was OK with that. I looked at it as just a thing that you have to let go."
That plan was delayed when Johns Hopkins recruited the running back, and the sophomore has rewarded the program for its vision.
The Parkville native leads the No. 8 Blue Jays in rushing with 962 yards and has scored eight touchdowns. His play is one of several reasons why Johns Hopkins (10-0) captured the program's third straight Centennial Conference title and earned the right to play host to No. 14 Wesley (8-2) in a NCAA tournament first-round game at Homewood Field in Baltimore this Saturday at noon.
Cherry showed flashes of his potential last season, carrying the ball 55 times for 252 yards and three touchdowns. But in a crowded backfield composed of eventual Centennial Conference Offensive Player of the Year Jonathan Rigaud and backup J.D. Abbott, Cherry had to be patient.
This fall, Abbott topped the depth chart with Cherry and freshmen Stuart Walters and Dionisio Roman sharing carries. But when Abbott suffered a thigh injury in the team's 45-13 rout of Muhlenberg on Sept. 28 and sat out three games, Cherry filled the void.
In five starts, he has rushed for 647 yards and five touchdowns. In his last start against Franklin & Marshall on Nov. 9, Cherry gained 163 yards and three touchdowns on just 15 attempts.
What is remarkable about the 5-foot-6, 174-pound Cherry is that he has been attacking defenses between the tackles. Abbott, who still leads the team in rushing touchdowns with 11 and has compiled 466 yards on 90 carries, said Cherry has dispelled the notion that he is an edge rusher.
"He came in as more of a speed back and this past year, he's really stepped up and learned to love running inside more," Abbott said. "Also, his pass blocking is improved, and he's really developed into a complete running back, which has been awesome to watch over the past couple years."
Coach Jim Margraff said he never bought into the notion that Cherry's size made him a third-down back.
"As a football player, he has no fear. So that's certainly a positive," Margraff said. "He might be short, but he's not small. Brandon is put together. He's worked very hard in the weight room. I think he's always had the confidence to go inside. I think he might have a little more strength and power to go along with that now."
Cherry, the first Blue Jays sophomore running back to be named to the Centennial Conference first team, needs just 38 yards to reach 1,000 yards this season. But he said his focus is on getting a win against Wesley and moving onto the postseason's second round.
"If I get two yards and we get a playoff win, that would be great," he said. "We're just trying to keep this thing going and eventually get to the [Amos Alonzo] Stagg Bowl, but we just have to take it one game at a time. It shows an accomplishment, but if your team isn't winning, then 1,000 yards doesn't mean anything."
Cherry acknowledged that taking the field in his first playoff game as a starter seems somewhat surreal considering how close he was to walking away from the sport.
"Every time I touch the field — even during practices when it's freezing cold or during two-a-days when it was extremely hot — I'm just always grateful that I'm able to touch the ball again, because a couple of people on our team have gotten season-ending injuries and that opportunity will not always be there," he said. "It can be taken away at any moment. So you want to make sure that you wake up and thank God for this opportunity to play football."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun