Mustangs Charging Head First Into 2015
Photo by Nikki Swafford
The Walker Valley Mustangs had a taste of what it took to be a successful team last season, and head coach Glen Ryan is looking for his 2015 squad to pick up right where they left off.
"I want us to have a seven-win season, matching or beating the best record at the school. We have a chance, but we had the chance last year. You always have a chance, it's just if you take advantage of the opportunities. This year we have enough talent to take another step forward - we need to take that next step," Coach Ryan declared. "We typically haven't had a lot of success here, and that's where [the] learning curve is. It's understanding what it takes to have that success that we still have to ingrain in our players."
The best season on record for Walker Valley was the 2004 campain under Scott Webb, when the team went 7-4 overall. The northern county school's only other winning season was a 6-5 record under Ted Lockerby. In 2005 the Mustangs were defeated by Trousdale County in the first round of the playoffs and then another three seasons later, made another first round exit after failing to Knox Powell.
In 2014, the Mustangs closed out their regular season with a record of 5-5 for the third time in the program's history, before having to face Maryville in the first round of the playoffs, where they were dealt a resounding 48-0 loss. Of those five regular season losses, three were by a touchdown or less. To date, the Mustangs have never advanced past the first round of the playoffs in a total of seven appearances, but this is the year Coach Ryan hopes to see that change.
Walker Valley only has nine seniors on its roster this time around, but has 25 juniors rounding out the upperclassmen. "We have a lot of juniors and a lot of sophomores. We have maybe 25 or so freshman. We're somwhere in the mid to upper 80's in total," the coach stated. The majority of the Mustangs' skill players come from that talented junior class.
"We're the best we've been skill position wise, but we've still got to shore up some areas on the offensive line and defensively," Ryan said. "We've got some sophomores and a couple of freshmen starting for us."
While he tries to limit his number of two-way players, Coach Ryan acknowledged that some will still see action on both sides of the ball. "We try not to play kids both ways, as much as we can help it. Obviously we'll have some because our best 11 will be out on the field. Where we have kids playing both ways, we want to make sure that we have quality backups for them, because they're going to need blows during the game."
The addition of Rhea County and White County to the region has added some excitement to the Mustangs' 2015 schedule. Walker Valley and Rhea County have played each other a total of 10 times, with the Eagles holding a 7-3 advantage. The Mustangs last defeated the Evansville team in 2013, when they picked up a 24-17 victory at home.
"We're excited about Rhea County coming back in. We know a little bit about Rhea County and what they've got," Coach Ryan commented. "They are a very good football team and it makes our [region] tougher, but that's what you want. You want to play in a good region and that way if you do well, then you've done well and have that chance to have success in the playoffs. If you play in a weak region, you might have a great season but go into the playoffs and get knocked out."
White County will be a less familiar face in northern Bradley County. The two teams have played each other only four times, which they split with two wins apiece. The Mustangs last defeated the Warriors in 2008 their last meeting, with a 42-7 win. "White County seems a little odd because they are kind of out there [distance wise], but they are the unknown. We scrimmaged them a couple of years ago; other than that we don't know much about them," Ryan added.
The Walker Valley coach is especially looking forward to opening up the season at home on Friday with fierce rival Bradley Central. "We're excited about it. It should be the atmosphere that we're trying to create up here. There should be a packed house and a great environment. If you can't get fired up about playing in a game like that, then you need to check your pulse because you're probably dead," Ryan declared.
On Aug. 28, the Mustangs travel to Hixson before opening up their region play on Sept. 4 at "The Corral" against McMinn County. Coffee County comes to Charleston on Sept. 11, marking the last home game until Oct. 16.
Walker Valley hits the road for their next three games, visiting Tyner on Sept. 25, Cleveland on Oct 1 and Soddy Daisy on Oct. 9. The Warriors make the trek down from Sparta on Oct. 16 and then Rhea County will venture over the river on Oct. 23. The Mustangs close out their season at Ooltewah on Oct. 30.
"We saved the best for last, I guess," Coach Ryan commented. "Not saying that any of those others are weak, but those two [Rhea County and Ooltewah] are definitely the top teams in everyone's eyes. We need to have success early and then see what happens there at the end."
The teams sideline leader feels early success can only come if Walker Valley takes no opponent lightly and quickly figures out some unknown variables. "We can't overlook anybody. We're a 5-5 team from last year, and it's not like we're Maryville or anything like that. The Maryvilles' [and other elite teams] get to that level, though, because they don't overlook anyone. Our focus right now is on Bradley Central, because they are game one," the coach stated.
"We feel like we have so many questions left unanswered right now and I don't know if they'll be answered until that first game. Where are we with our linebackers and where are we with our offensive line? Our scrimmages have helped us get a better idea, but until that first game, we still have those unknown variables. We don't know how they will step up under the lights and in actual games where it counts. If those two areas come through for us, we feel like we'll have the chance to have a very successful season."
"We've still got some things that we have to polish up before we open up the season," the coach continued. "We've got to get all the little wrinkles and kinks out and click on both sides of the ball. The offense needs to be sharp, and the defense needs to be aggressive and hard-nosed, playing their responsibilities. We have to make sure we're sound at special teams."
One area the coach is not concerned about this year is his offensive skill players. Formerly a group of talented sophomores, this season all of the core skill players are now well-seasoned upperclassemen.
"Hopefully, they've grown up and are a year older and more mature - they understand that they aren't little puppies anymore," Ryan began. "We need them to step up and the one thing we want to take out of last year is that we had the opportunity to win eight ball games, but we didn't finish.
That's been our theme, to finish. We have to play a full game, not a half game or two-thirds of a game.'
Returning at quarterback is sophomore Kolten Gibson, who connected on 79 of 143 attempts for a total of 942 yards and six touchdowns last season. Of those 79 completed passes, the freshman threw only four interceptions.
Gibson will have numerous familiar faces to target this season, as the starting receivers have remained virtually unchanged. Standout junior wideouts Cooper Melton, Bryce Nunnelly, Tucker Mendenhall and Zach Eslinger have all returned, which should help bolster the Mustang air attack.
"We are very fortunate and feel that we have four really good quality receivers. All four of them started and played a lot last year. Not only Cooper, but also we feel Bryce Nunnelly is going to be as good as a receiver as there is. Then we've got Tucker Mendenhall, who did a great job for us last year in the slot position and Zach Eslinger at Y [in the spread offense] runs great routes and has great hands," Coach Ryan stated.
Melton was one of the county's top receivers during 2014, with a total of 384 yards and three touchdowns on 27 receptions. Nunnelly followed closely behind Melton in the prep stats, with a total of 358 yards and two touchdowns on 29 receptions. Eslinger saw 169 yards with a touchdown on 10 receptions with Mendenhall gaining 114 yards on eight receptions and finding the end zone once as well. The four receivers each averaged a first down per reception last year, Eslinger with an average of 16.9 yards, Mendenhall with 14.3 yards, Melton at 14.2 yards and Nunnelly at 12.3 yards.
The Mustangs also have another pair of receivers Coach Ryan feels wil see some time this season. "Dylan Towers (junior) has come on for us and will be able to rotate in there with them and a young receiver in Zeke Westfield (sophomore) who is coming on.
We feel like we have some weapons out there, especially with the starting four, then we have some younger guys who will be able to get some blows when needed. This is going to help our offense because it's not just one guy they can key on. If they key on one guy, we've got three others that can go too."
Making Walker Valley even more of an offensive threat is the running back duo of junior Alex King and senior Avery Jones. King racked up 865 yards on 172 rushes last year and was the Mustangs' leading scorer with a total of nine touchdowns. Jones had four touchdowns and 327 yards on 93 attempts.
"They are two good running backs and two good young men. We're very fortunate to have two good backs," Ryan began. "They have different styles and strengths that they bring to the table and that helps us be productive offensively in our running game. You've got not just one guy to look at, but two guys that come in and are able to stay fresh by rotating them out. We're expecting big things out of both of them." According to the coach, junior Cody Morfield will be in as fullback when the offense calls for it.
Center senior Bryson Bradley is the lone returning offensive line starter this year with junior Chris Ogle and sophomore Sam Clements in at tackle. Sophomore Koby Hooker and freshman Spencer Wilson round out the O-line at guard. "Spencer Wilson has a good chance of starting at offensive guard for us. He's the only true starter as a freshman that we have right now."
Last year, Walker Valley's top four linebackers combined for a total of 383 tackles (solo and assisted) last year and were credited by the coach for much of the team's success. According to Coach Ryan, this year's linebackers will have some big cleats to fill.
"We lost all of our linebackers from last year, so they've had to come in and work hard in the weight room in the offseason and work hard out there in practice to get it down. We're challenging them every day - they've got to step up and fill some big shoes."
The Mustangs' defense includes returning senior starters Ben Clark at defensive end and Brice Gibson at cornerback. Gibson has 30 solo tackles and 27 assisted last year, while Clark had 13 solos and was in on another 28 tackles. Clark also had two tackles for loss and three sacks.
Isaiah Alston (sophomore) will be the other starting defensive end, with Bryce Nunnelly in as the other cornerback. Senior Will Futrell will start at nose guard, with juniors Mason Oran and Grayson Roundtree at safety. Roundtree accrued 14 solo tackles and 26 assisted tackles, while Oran had 16 and 15 respectively.
At the time of this preview, the Mustangs coaching staff had yet to solidify their special teams unit. "We're still in the infant stages of our special teams, and haven't really nailed it down yet," Ryan explained. "Special teams has always been one of our strengths and we're doing things no differently this year than we've done in the past,"
According to the current roster, senior soccer standout Andrew Hannah is listed as a kicker, with sophomore Evan Officer listed as a kicker or punter. "We feel like we're going to have a good kicker and have a good battle going right now."
David Shonts has come in as the offensive line coach this season. Scotty Smith remains the defensive coordinator and Todd Burkhart is back as offensive coordinator. Harry Dillon is working with the receivers, with Joe Shamblin coaching running backs. Craig Ryan is the linebacker coach and Eric Swafford is the defensive line coach.