In its last three years the Walker Valley program has had its share of struggles, going a combined 3-27 since the TSSAA overhaul of state classifications.
But, the ’Stangs are looking to put that all behind them as they travel to East Ridge High School for a 7:30 season-opening start against the Pioneers.
“This is the most important game these guys will ever play, and then after it’s over we have to put it behind us because the next game is the most important game we will ever play,” stated new Walker Valley head coach Glen Ryan.
“We can’t look ahead this season, and we can’t look back. We have to focus on one game at a time with everything we have.”
East Ridge will also be looking to prove something. In 2011 the team went 5-5 and missed the playoffs for the first time in the last four seasons. It too will feature a new head coach in Mike Martin, who took over the program in June.
Both Walker Valley and East Ridge got a good look at each other during last weekend’s jamboree at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga.
Walker Valley came out strong in its contest against Brainerd, when senior Gabe Cartwright sprinted down the field for a 41-yard touchdown.
The Panthers responded with a six-play drive scoring drive that covered 84 yards. They went for a two-point conversion to try to win the scrimmage, but Walker Valley was able to stop the attempt in the backfield and hang on for the 7-6 win.
“Our speed is getting better. We had Gabe break that big run for the touchdown, and when Brainerd broke a big run we had enough speed to track him (the Panther running back) down and keep him from doing the same thing to us,” explained Ryan.
“We just have to make sure we maintain our focus every single play of every single drive. We let our focus slip after our touchdown and they almost came back to win on us.”
East Ridge, on the other hand, fell 13-0 to Grace Academy, but its ground game looked explosive at times.
On the very first play of the scrimmage East Ridge’s running back took off with a 48-yard run, but the play was called back because of a holding call. In the same series another big run was also called back because of a hold, but it was apparent the run game has “big play” capabilities.
“East Ridge is a very athletic football team. They have a lot of speed on the field, and that’s always a scary thing to be going up against. The big thing for us is making sure we shore up the mistakes we made against Brainerd at the jamboree,” Ryan said.
No one around the Mustang team is under the impression this is just another football game. Players and coaches are both ready and anxious to take to the field and test a preseason littered with hard work and expectation.
“We can’t go about things with a business-as-usual mentality, because our business as usual hasn’t been very good lately. It’s a whole different mindset we are trying to create here. Hopefully, as we start to understand that new mentality we can establish a new business-as-usual kind of concept,” Ryan explained.
The coaching staff has installed a few wrinkles for Friday’s game, according to Ryan, and the team is chomping at the bit to test itself in an actual game-day scenario.
A win Friday night could be the pivotal point in Walker Valley’s season, potentially being the difference between a successful year or another missed opportunity.
“Winning Friday would be huge for our program. Last year we had East Ridge on the ropes and let them come back and win. Then, we lost to Hixson in our second game,” Ryan stated.
“We started off 0-2. When you look back at last year, we lost a handful of games by a touchdown or less. I can’t help but wonder what last season would have looked like had we won those first two games. Things like that can make all the difference in the world.”