By PATRICK MacCOON
As Walker Valley looks to be one of the top competitors in District 5-AAA on the soccer pitch for the third season in a row, the boys' program is grateful for the sudden change of culture.After all, …
As Walker Valley looks to be one of the top competitors in District 5-AAA on the soccer pitch for the third season in a row, the boys' program is grateful for the sudden change of culture.
After all, the darker days for the Mustangs included a stretch from 2008-15 that included a 24-62-10 overall record.
Now, a determined bunch has posted back-to-back record-breaking seasons as they followed up a 12-3 mark with a 12-2-1 finish in 2017.
“We want to keep riding that success,” said WVHS head coach Tom Bayliss. “We want to continue and establish ourselves as a top-notch competitor. It took us awhile to get this program built to where it is, but we are enjoying the ride and should have a talented bunch again this year.”
Despite the 'Stangs equaling their win total from the previous eight seasons over the past two campaigns, there still have been letdowns.
The Mustangs have seen their previous breakthrough seasons end in the District 5-AAA semifinals by just one goal – in back-to-back years to McMinn County and Ooltewah.
“We want our guys to let the past two postseasons fuel us,” Bayliss said. “We know we have had the talent to go much further. I hope this group goes out and plays every game like it’s our last.”
With expectations raised once again, a swollen heads must be avoided, as there are no guarantees competing in a tough district.
“We can’t lean on our accomplishments from the past week or the season before,” Bayliss added. “I challenge our guys to improve daily, battle with a chip on our shoulder and play with a great team effort every game.”
Walker Valley has demonstrated a high level of soccer lately, thanks to lockdown defense and a versatile attack on the offensive side.
Last season its defense was one of the best in the state, only allowing 0.6 goals (nine total) per game and 23 total over the last 30 matches.
In fact, the only two losses for the Mustangs came in a pair of 1-nil defeats to Cleveland on the road and Ooltewah at home in the district semifinals.
With the regular season slated to start for WV in the 10th annual Cleveland Classic (March 22-24), with matches against Maryville, Howard and Coffee County, the next chapter is set to begin for a program that has come a very long way.
Looking to replace the district’s defensive MVP in graduated keeper Skylar Swafford will be CJ Heffner and Noah Taylor in front of the net.
Returning to anchor the back line of defense will be All-District first team selection Alex Cresswell, who looks to have strong support alongside him in fellow senior Caleb Grannan, sophomore David Perez and several others.
“We want to limit our opposition to single-digit shots per game,” Bayliss said. “We have talent on the offensive side to put up 30 shots or more each game. If we can have a good finishing percentage, we should win a lot of games.”
While the standout duo of David Camacho-Ordaz (30 career goals) and Sam Gibson (District Midfield MVP) will be missed, as they combined for 23 goals and 19 assists last season, plenty of talented “net seekers” return.
Walker Valley will look to be paced by senior Sam McDonald and junior Kevin Lopes, while sophomore Adrian Franco looks perhaps to break out as well for an attack that averaged 3.9 goals per contest last season.
All three were well-rounded attackers last season.
Battling through some injuries, McDonald finished as a first team district selection with eight goals and seven assists.
Making it on the All-District second team, Lopes added eight goals (hat trick) and Franco starred late with seven goals.
“With the mixture of players we have, it will give us plenty of chances to be creative on offense,” Bayliss said. “Kevin is a very strong player on both sides of the ball, Sam has a strong leg and Adrian is a smooth operator and playmaker who will get lots of touches.”
Also expected to play strong roles this season will be senior Sam Gruber along with juniors Chase Foster, Jaden McCollough and James Landberg.
“We know what the standard for our program is now,” Bayliss said. “We had some tough seasons in the past, but with hard work we want to keep raising the bar. Our guys have to go out, work for it and earn the success.”
The Mustangs' next step would be making it to the district championship match and reaching the region tournament for the first time.
Not to mention, the program is searching for its first win against the powerhouse Cleveland Blue Raiders since beating them in the 2006 district semifinals.
The district rivals will square up at WVHS on April 5 at 6 p.m.
Tough non-district matches will come on the road against Signal Mountain (March 29) and at home against Boyd-Buchanan (April 19).
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