“We had to start from scratch and instill a hard hat, lunch pale, blue collar type work ethic. The players bought into it. Now the whole school and community are caught up in it,” declared first-year head coach Glen Ryan, who has Walker Valley football off to its first 3-0 start in the 12-year history of the school. “We’re just having fun. This is the way the game is meant to be played.”
Matching the win total of the three previous seasons combined, these aren’t the same Mustangs.
“One of the biggest concerns people had was what was going to change, because I had already been on the staff (as offensive coordinator) for two years and we didn’t have any teaching positions available until the last minute to add any new coaches,” he explained.
“When I took over, I wanted the players to know everything was going to be different. We needed to start over. We got new uniforms, a new logo and cleaned up the field house and entrance,” he related. “Most of all, we needed to get out of the losing mentality. These guys (the players) were hungry and willing to try something different.”
“That mindset helped us get started,” stated the more than 20-year veteran coach who had turned programs around before. “We can’t look behind. We can’t look ahead. We’ve got to focus on what we need to do every day as it comes. We still have a lot to learn about ourselves but we are off to a great start and we want to build on that.”
After admittedly stumbling some in the season opener before being able to come away with a 20-10 victory at East Ridge, Walker Valley looked strong in a 42-12 win at Hixson and determined in a 33-22 shootout with Red Bank last Friday.
While some people have tried to discount the Mustang start because of the quality of teams they’ve beaten, Ryan is quick to point out these are teams Walker Valley lost to last season.
“We knew we could compete with East Ridge and Hixson, but beating Red Bank says a lot about the direction we are headed,” he remarked. “We now have a huge challenge ahead of us Friday night. We want to be mentioned in the same breath as Cleveland and Bradley but to do that we have to compete with them on the field.”
Although his Mustangs come into their first District 5-AAA contest Friday night at Benny Monroe Stadium with a 3-0 record and Cleveland is 2-2, Ryan knows his team is the underdog.
“They (Cleveland) lost their first two games to two very tough programs,” he stated. “We all know what Maryville has done (currently ranked No. 1 in the state 6A poll, 10 state championships and a 194-13 record, including 74 straight victories, since 1998) and Knox Catholic (ranked eighth in the 5A poll) is a very good team this year.”
They also came back to beat a very good Ooltewah team (27-26) and then exploded on Chattanooga Central (35-13) last week,” Ryan related. “I don’t listen to people saying Cleveland is down, because I know better.”
“They are a dangerous team, very explosive and very well coached,” he added. “I’ve known coach (Ron) Crawford since he was at Riverdale as an assistant under (current Maryville coach) George Quarles. I coached against them when they won the state title in 1997 and we have kept in touch over the years. I know the kind of coach he is and his team will be ready Friday night.”
“Cleveland has a lot of speed and a very good quarterback who runs their offense well and throws the ball all over the place,” Ryan assessed. “It will be a challenge to hem them in and not let them bust a big play. Defensively, they get after you and have good speed to make up for any mistakes they make.”
The Blue Raiders have gained more than 1,200 yards, only 231 of which have come on the ground, while scoring 105 points in their first four games.
Raider quarterback Austin Herink has completed 92-of-144 passes for 977 yards, tossing nine touchdowns and only being picked off once. The junior lefty has spread the ball around to 10 different receivers, with DJ Jones pulling in 25 passes for 2,881 yards and three scores.
CJ Bryant has been the top ball carrier for Cleveland, carrying the rock 55 times for 214 yards.
The Mustangs have put 97 points on the board and compiled 946 yards of offense, while the defense has allowed just 44 points and surrendered 902 yards to opposing offenses.
Walker Valley has done most of its offensive damage on the ground, gaining 749 yards by 10 different ball carriers, including Justin Ware, who is averaging 12 yards a carry with 275 yards and five scores in just 23 rushes.
Reggie Mills is gaining at an 8.3 clip with 142 yards on 17 carries with a TD, while Gabe Cartwright has scored twice with 126 yards on 33 rushes. Cartwright also scored on a 68-yard kick return last week.
“We lost a good back in (Kelvin) Wells (who transferred to McMinn County), but everybody else has stepped up and we have been able to spread the ball around to many different players,” Ryan explained. “Our offensive line has done a great job of opening holes.”
The new Mustang mentor is also happy with the performance of his defense. “Our defense was a concern for us during the offseason. We couldn’t stop anybody last year. Our defense has stepped up this season and is doing a great job.”
“The biggest difference this season is how we’ve responded to adversity,” Ryan praised. “Instead of hanging our heads and giving up when something goes wrong, we have been able to continue to fight for the full 48 minutes.”
“Our schedule has been good for us so far but now it’s time to start the district and this is a tough way to start it, but it’s not going to get an easier,” the coach assessed. “This is a huge opportunity for us, with what will be a tremendous atmosphere in front of a huge crowd.”
“We want to compete in the district and establish a rivalry with Cleveland and Bradley,” Ryan expressed. “It’s not really a rivalry until both teams are capable of winning. It’s been lopsided so far, but we hope to change that and make it a real rivalry.”
“Cleveland is a tough place to play, and the fact that Bradley is off this week should add to the crowd,” he added. “We’ll take a big crowd. There’s a lot of excitement in the community and it should be a great atmosphere.”