That declaration proved abundantly true very quickly Friday night at Benny Monroe Stadium.
The Blue Raiders scored on all but one of their offensive possessions, including twice in their first five plays on a 55-yard run and a 77-yard pass, on their way to a 56-28 shellacking of the previously unbeaten Mustangs.
“We knew we had to come out fast. That’s something we’ve been waiting on all season. We had great execution by our offense, and were really, really solid on defense. I’m really proud. We made some improvement this week,” stated new Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford.
Now, 3-2 on the season and more importantly 2-0 in the District 5-AAA race, Cleveland will prepare to face former head coach E.K. Slaughter’s new Red Bank team, which not only lost to Walker Valley 33-22 a week ago, but were upset by Hixson, who rallied from a 20-point fourth quarter deficit for a 36-35 win on a late two-point conversion, Friday. The Lions are now 1-3 under Slaughter, who coached the Raiders the previous three years.
Slipping to 3-1 on the year after dropping their district opener, Walker Valley will try to regroup before playing host to 11th-ranked (3A) Polk County this week.
“We have to put this game behind us and get ready for a tough Polk team,” Ryan proclaimed.
Cleveland found the end zone on all six of its first half possessions with senior CJ Bryant and junior DJ Jones finding pay dirt three times apiece as the hosts built a 42-7 advantage by the intermission.
After junior quarterback Austin Herink opened the game with a pair of completions for 17 yards, Bryant scored on the game’s third play from scrimmage, breaking free on a 55-yard dash.
“Our quarterback was on. Our ‘O’ line did a good job. We got the running game going a bit. Hit big plays both in the passing attack and on the ground. I couldn’t be happier,” expressed Crawford.
“Glen’s (Ryan) doing a great job improving that program. His kids fought till the very end, and I think they are going to be just fine.”
Although Walker Valley’s Garrett Moore was able to block the extra point, the Raiders were up 6-0 just 71 seconds into the contest.
The Mustangs were able to move the ball into Raider territory on their first try, but a sack by Raider senior Joe Morgan on a fourth-and-1 play ended the eight-play march.
After the first of five unsportsmanlike penalties in the opening half, plus a four-yard loss on their first play, moved Cleveland back to their own 23, Herink hit a streaking Jones, who had gotten behind the Mustang secondary, for a 77-yard scoring strike. This time Jesse Jones’ PAT attempt sailed through the uprights for the first of his half dozen points on the evening.
“We still have some area’s that we have to correct. There were times we were having fun and celebrating. The film will clear things up for us. We have good kids. This is a good school, but we have to work on acting like we’ve been there before. We’ll do a better job of it,” expressed Cleveland’s head coach when asked about the penalty situation.
The Raider defense set up the game’s next score, picking off the first of three interceptions on the night, this one on the third play of the series by Darius Pillow. The junior linebacker returned the pick 20 yards to the Mustang 15 yard line.
Four plays later, Bryant punched the ball across the goal line from five yards out and Jones’ kick put the hosts up 20-0 with 4:11 left to play in the opening quarter.
After the ensuing kickoff, a dropped pass and a penalty appeared to set up a Walker Valley punt, but the third Raider unsportsmanlike flag gave the visitors a first down. Three plays later quarterback Garrett Wallace hooked up with Justin Ware for a 48-yard touchdown toss to put the Mustangs on the board. Brad Hoffner added the extra point to trim the score to 20-7 with 1:49 still to go in the first frame.
After Bryant returned the ensuing kickoff 40 yards to near midfield, the Raiders responded with yet another scoring drive, this one taking 10 plays to march 56 yards with Bryant punching the ball in from the 3.
Cleveland found the end zone two more times before the bands took the field for the halftime show. The first needing just two plays to go 61 yards — an 18-yard run by Bryant and a 43-yard toss from Herink to Jones — while the other went eight plays with Herink and Jones hooking up again for an 11-yard score.
With just 44 seconds remaining in the first half, Walker Valley’s Gabe Cartwright returned the kick off 33 yards to midfield and five plays later the Mustangs were on the Raider 9. With time for only one more play, the visitors went to the air and this time Cleveland’s David Morgan snatched the pass and appeared headed for a “Pick 6” before being run down from behind at the Mustang 40 to end the half.
“We didn’t tackle well. We reverted back to some of our old bad habits,” expressed coach Ryan. “We were making a lot of mistakes and not playing our game.”
During halftime, coach Ryan challenged his herd “to win the second half. Our kids responded. They didn’t quit and roll over, even after giving up that quick score.”
With a running clock (due to the 35-point difference), Raider Raekwon Bunion picked off the third interception of the night on the second play after the intermission and returned it from midfield to the Mustang 16. Coach Crawford rewarded him by handing the ball off to him two straight times and the sophomore defensive back/running back gained 11 yards on the first carry and took the rock to the house from five yards out on the second.
Not willing to surrender, Walker Valley put 21 points on the scoreboard in the final nine minutes of the contest and stopped the “running clock” situation twice.
The Mustang’s first score came on a seven-play, 82-yard march that was highlighted by runs of 43 and 32 yards by Ware, the second of which ended in pay dirt.
Walker Valley needed just 25 seconds to find the end zone again. After a successful onside kick recovered by Zach Hartman at the Raider 48, Ware set up the next score with a 23-yard dash before Reggie Mills did the honors from 18 yards out.
A second onside kick wasn’t successful as Cleveland’s David Morgan picked up the bouncing ball and returned it to the Mustang 33. The Raider reserves were able to burn some time off the clock, taking eight plays and more than six minutes before scoring on a nine-yard pass from sophomore QB Jacob Gibson to classmate Rod Dennard with 2:23 remaining.
Walker Valley avoided the “running clock” when Ware returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards for the game’s final score before Cleveland was able to run out the clock.
The teams finished with almost identical all-purpose yardage as Cleveland nipped the ’Stangs 516-515. The Raiders won the aerial battle 238-48, but Walker Valley had a 223-113 rushing advantage plus a 244-63 difference in kick returns. However, the hosts returned their three interceptions a total of 112 yards while the visitors didn’t have a takeaway.
Herink finished the night 13-of-19 for 221 yards and a trio of touchdown tosses to bring him to just under 1,200 passing yards and a dozen TDs for the season.
Jones had four catches for 142 yards and three scores, while Bryant carried the ball just five times for 79 yards and his trio of touchdowns.
Ware gained 265 all-purpose yards, scoring three different ways. The Mustang senior speedster had 11 carries for 129 yards, including a 32-yard scoring romp. He also caught a 48-yard touchdown pass and had the 88-yard kickoff return to pay dirt.
Cartwright added 133 yards to the Walker Valley total with 56 yards on 11 carries, plus 77 yards on four kick returns. Colton Morrow had 79 yards on four kick returns as well.
Recent transfers Chaz Fulford and Michael Arnett had big defensive nights for the Mustangs.
Fulford led the way with a half dozen solo tackles, three assists and a trio of tackles for loss. Arnett helped out with six total hits, including a pair behind the line of scrimmage, plus he forced a fumble.
“It was the first game with us for both those guys. I think they are really going to help our defense,” coach Ryan stated.
Senior Bradley Franklin was in on seven tackles for Walker Valley, while sophomore Jayln Brown had a half dozen hits.