This Friday evening Bradley County will get to see its first glimpse of the reported “Category 5” hurricane that has been predicted to tear through its new District 5-AAA opponents.
Walker Valley will batten down the hatches Friday and hope, when all is said and done, that “The Corral” remains intact after the Mustangs host the football powerhouse that is the third-ranked (Class 5A) East Hamilton Hurricanes.
“We’ve got East Hamilton coming up here. They were the preseason favorites in our district and for a reason — they’re a good football team,” Mustang head coach Glen Ryan said. “To play with them we’re going to have to play by far our best game of the season. That’s why you play; anything can happen on a Friday night.”
Coach Ryan knows that the deck is stacked against his young team on paper, but is quick to point out the game isn’t won on paper.
“I’d say they’re right, we are the underdogs. If you look at it on paper there’s no way we should be on the field with them. Our mentality is that the game is played on the field, because on the field anything can happen on any given night,” Ryan commented.
That mentality has seemingly caught hold of the Mustangs, who have been able to sway the tide of momentum in their favor in their two previous games.
Last Friday, Walker Valley was able to come back from a three-TD deficit and trot away with a 24-21 win over Sequoyah.
“It’s a tribute to our guys, but I’d still like to see us come out and start a little faster. I want us to get stronger as the game goes on, but I don’t want us to be sluggish at the start,” Ryan stated. “They don’t give up and that’s one thing that I’m really proud of. It wasn’t that long ago that if something like that happened we would’ve just folded it up.”
Both teams will enter Friday’s game with a 2-0 record — the Mustangs have defeated East Ridge (21-3) and Sequoyah, while the ’Canes have blown past a pair of state-ranked teams in Signal Mountain (14-12) and Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett (33-21).
“It helps going into this game being 2-0 rather than being 0-2. We’ve got to go out and we’ve got to take care of us. We’ve got to do the things we know how to do, and do them right,” Ryan explained. “We’ve got to be real stingy on defense, making the plays that we need to make. On offense we have to block the people we’re supposed to and hold on to that football. We’ll see what happens when all the dust settles and the horn sounds the end of the game.”
The head coach expects his normal workhorses to continue to set the bar for the team. In 21 attempts, junior Holt Spencer has rushed for 71 yards, three of which resulted in touchdowns. Senior Tanner Dillard has racked up 95 yards in 15 runs, while classmate Chandler Hunt has helped out with 86 yards on 10 carries.
On the receiving end of things, freshman Coooper Melton has four receptions for a total of 79 yards, including a dandy touchdown catch in last Friday’s victory.
“We’ve got to take great angles and fly the football. We can’t rely on one guy to make a tackle, we’ve got to all pursue. Offensively we’ve got to get on our box and we’ve got to stay on it. We have to hit the holes and take what we can get,” Ryan said. “We’re not going to break any big runs probably, but if we can get three to five yards a carry and not turn the ball over or negate them with penalties, that adds up to first downs. First downs add up to moving the ball, and moving the ball adds up to scoring.”
Headed up by wide receiver/cornerback Tre Herndon who has committed to play for Vanderbilt, East Hamilton’s speed is widely known, and according to Ryan, persistence will be key in Friday’s game.
“We have to be patient and understand that they’re very fast, and we’ve just got to be that pesky little dog that never goes away and is always biting at the ankles,” Ryan stated. “If we can do that, then I think we can be in the ballgame. If we can’t, well then it could get ugly.”
While Ryan acknowledges his team lacks depth, he has seen efforts made by various players to step up and fill the void.
“We’ve had some guys come on who are giving us a little more depth. We know now that we can count on them to step in and give us some quality reps in the game,” Ryan commented. “As the season progresses, hopefully we can get more and more guys stepping up and being able to get those quality reps on Friday night. I believe in this group and I believe that they want to do well. We’re still making a lot of ‘young’ mistakes, but every week we’re getting better. We’ll fight to the end, we’re not going to roll over.”
For the Mustangs, who have been fortunate thus far when it comes to injuries, Friday’s game will take just as much mental preparation as it does physical.
“We can’t get intimidated by the fact that ‘big, mighty’ East Hamilton is rolling in here. We have to be ready to suit up, go play, and give it everything you’ve got. That’s what we’re expecting out of them,” Coach Ryan said. “We’re approaching this game as if it’s just another game. They’re a good football team but you have to give it everything you’ve got and give it your very best. Crazy things happen on that field — that ball is an oblong ball and it bounces funny ways.”
While the coaches and team always step out on the field with the intention of winning, Ryan still wants the Mustangs to focus on getting out and playing a solid football game.
“I’ve told these guys from day one that all we can do is go out and play our very best game every time we step out on the field. If we do that, win or loss, we can hold our heads high. It’s when you don’t play your best game and get beat ... you will always have those ‘What if?’ thoughts in your head. That’s no way to go through life — you don’t want any regrets,” the coach reflected.
No matter the outcome of the tough district matchup, Ryan still has high expectations for his Walker Valley team this season.
“Like I said early on, this is a fun bunch to coach — they never stop surprising me. They’re working very hard for us. They still make a lot of knuckleheaded mistakes, but then turn around and do something that just wows the very next play,” Ryan said. “When all is said and done we want to be in a place where we have a playoff berth.”