“We’ve not talked about Bradley. We sure haven’t talked about the playoffs,” he stated earlier this week. “We need to focus on ourselves; doing the things we need to do to be a better team. We have to focus on finishing every drill, every run, every tackle.”
In turning around a program that had only won three games the previous three years, Ryan’s Stallions burst out of the gate for the first 3-0 start in school history before being battered and beaten by “a three-game gauntlet of Cleveland, Polk County and McMinn County” that saw their record evened.
“We had a long meeting after the McMinn game and told the kids we’re back at square one. August and September were over. October is a ‘new season,’” related Ryan. “We talked about needing to finish strong. Our season will be determined by how we do this month.”
His Mustangs responded to the pep talk with their second 30-point victory of the season last Friday against Soddy-Daisy, for their first District 5-AAA victory in their last 20 league games.
“We went back to the basics. We executed our assignments and played good ‘team ball,’ remarked Ryan. “We played good, swarming defense and were making good hits and tackles. We got back to the fundamentals.
“It was a big win. We needed to get back on track and we did,” the veteran coach commented. “It feels great to be three-quarters through the season and still be playing meaningful games.”
Both Walker Valley and Bradley come into Friday’s intra-county clash with 4-3 records, but the Bears are 2-1 in the district, while the Mustangs are 1-2.
While the boys from the north end of the county are riding high after last week’s big win, the southsiders are coming off a heartbreaking district loss to Ooltewah in which they saw a 14-point lead turn into an 11-point loss.
“Bradley will be looking to bounce back and they have a lot of weapons to try to deal with,” Ryan assessed. “They’ve got some very good receivers. No. 1 (tailback Logan Fetzner) can scoot. Then of course you’ve got ‘Big Daddy’ (quarterback Bryce Copeland) who can hurt you with his arm or his feet.”
The Bears have compiled more than 2,400 yards of offense, including 1,346 through the air and 1,058 on the ground while averaging just under 24 points a game.
Copeland has completed 95-of-158 passes for 1,256 yards and seven touchdowns, plus leads the Bear rushing attack with 433 yards on 89 carries, including eight into the end zone.
Junior Dee Crisp is averaging just under 20 yards a catch, having hauled in 23 passes for 433 yards and three scores, while Cal Pickel has pulled in 27 Bear passes for 344. Deshawn McCleary (12 for 173), Baylor Terrell (16 for 154) and Caleb Cain (14 for 166) have all eclipsed the century mark in receptions this season.
Despite being hampered with a nagging ankle injury suffered in the second game of the season, Fetzner has average more than six yards a carry, gaining 404 on 64 rushes, including five for scores.
“They (Bradley) make you defend the whole field,” Ryan proclaimed. “We’ve got to tackle well and not can’t give up the home run ball.”
Although the schools are only 12 miles apart, with several Bradley students shifted to Walker Valley when it opened 12 years ago, Ryan says there’s no “real” football rivalry between the two schools yet.
“For there to be a rivalry, both teams have to have won games against the other. We haven’t done that yet,” he explained. “We want to build a rivalry with them because of the natural connection, but the truth is they’ve won every game so far. We’d like to change that and compete with them every year.”
The two teams have met just seven times with the 2007 game being the closest contest as the Bears claimed a 17-14 victory.
Although last year’s game was a 42-0 blowout at Bear Stadium, the last time Bradley came to “The Corral,” it was a 40-33 shootout that came down to the wire.
“It’s obviously a big game, but we can’t afford to get caught up in all the hype like we did against Cleveland, or else we’ll lay an egg,” Ryan stated. “I feel like our kids are more grounded this week. We’ll lay it all on the line Friday night and see what happens.”