The Region 4-5A football media day was held Tuesday morning at The Bridge of Ooltewah. Walker Valley was represented by Bryce Nunnelly (23), Alex King (33) head coach Glen Ryan, second from right, and Cooper Melton (31). (Banner Photo - Saralyn Norkus)
OOLTEWAH — With football season fast approaching, the Region 4-5A teams gathered in Ooltewah to discuss their strengths and hopes for the 2016 season.
As is tradition at these meetings, the coaches and sports media took the time to rank the seven teams in preseason polls. It was Rhea County, a team who has made the Class 5A semifinals for the past two years, that topped both the coaches’ and media preseason polls.
Walker Valley ranked high in both polls, coming in third behind Ooltewah in the coaches’ poll and tied for second with the Owls in the media poll. Cleveland tied for fourth with Soddy-Daisy in the coaches’ poll and was also fourth in the media poll.
“It is what it is. We figured that with as many people coming back as we have and the tight games that we had with some of the better teams, there was going to be some pressure on us,” Walker Valley head coach Glen Ryan commented. “We’ve just got to go play football — we can’t worry about the polls, we can’t worry about anything else. We have to go out every day and play Walker Valley football and be at our best.”
The Mustangs are returning the majority of their starters, which includes what many see as a scary-good receiving corps made up of names such as recent UTC commit Bryce Nunnelly, Cooper Melton and Zach Eslinger. Quarterback Kolten Gibson and running back Alex King are also highly rated.
Walker Valley’s talent has been a conversation piece for the past few years, but unfortunately that hasn’t always been a positive thing for the squad. Despite having the pieces needed to see success on the field and averaging around 35 points a game, the Mustangs posted a disappointing 4-6 record and missed the playoffs last season. Ryan is hoping that the letdown of 2015 is a motivating factor this season.
King, who is on track to break Walker Valley’s all-time rushing record this year, is optimistic that the team’s hard work will pay off.
“We’ve all been working hard this off season and preseason,” he stated. “The wide receivers have been doing a good job of blocking outside for me to get out and run the ball.”
Melton emerged as a rising star during his freshman season and has gone on to be one of the top receivers in Walker Valley’s history.
Upon reviewing his past performances, Melton has homed in on one area that he intends to improve on — blocking for King.
“Sometimes Alex, as well all know, can break a big one and he gets to that second level and the guy I’m supposed to block sometimes will make the tackle. I’d watch the film and it would kill me, because I knew that if I had blocked that guy we could’ve had a 60-yard touchdown instead of an 11 yard run for a first down,” Melton said.
With his name already at the top of numerous top 10 lists, Melton is looking forward to his senior season.
“It’s definitely flown by. I’ve played with the seniors for a while now, basically since sixth grade, and with Bryce and Alex basically my whole life,” the wide receiver said. “It’s not been as hard to adjust as I thought it was, because we’ve had seniors in the past like Bryson Bradley and Ben Clark who helped us become the leaders we are today.”
Being voted at the middle of the pack was not something that caught Cleveland head coach Scott Cummings off guard. As the team enters its second year under the state championship winning coach’s tutelage, it is the unknowns that could prove to be an exciting factor for the 2016 reason.
“I think the best word for us is ‘unknown.’ We just have so many unknown kids because we were so young last year and still are pretty young overall. We still have seniors like Skyler, that everybody knows about, but we still will be playing a lot of sophomores, some who played last year as freshmen, but we’ll have a lot playing that nobody knows and are bigger than what we had last year,” Cummings commented. “Nobody has ever seen Dallas [McCrary] play quarterback, if you don’t know what their quarterback looks like, you’re going to have a hard time being picked at the top. We’re just a bunch of unknowns, but I think that if we can stay healthy, we’ll be a lot of knowns.”
Cleveland’s size and strength have definitely increased during the offseason. The coach noted that last year the team only had one player who could squat over 400 pounds, but this year, 14 of his players are squatting over 400 pounds.
Having moved to Colorado and missing his junior season, McCrary is back and looking to see a successful senior season.
“Cleveland football is something very special and they’ve always treated me with class and respect, so I’m very excited to play for them this year,” McCrary said. “I’m very excited to be throwing to Skyler Davis of course, and then we actually have a new receiver, Mel Obadiah, who played at TCPS last year. A lot of people don’t know about Mel, but I feel like he could do some things this year when we get some confidence in him. Of course there’s Michaleous (Elder) and we also have Darius Howard, who will hopefully step it up and do some big things for us.”
Davis is perhaps the Raiders’ most known factor from the 2015 season with a common saying being “When in doubt, throw it up to Skyler.” According to the senior receiver, that is something that shouldn’t have to be so common this season.
“Practice has been going a lot smoother than it had been last year, because we were a new program and had a lot of new guys trying to work into it. Being a year into it and having a new quarterback, I feel like it’s running a lot smoother,” Davis explained. “I feel like we’re going to have a much better understanding on the field and with the running backs, so it won’t always be ‘When it doubt, throw it up to Skyler’ — we’ll have something else up our sleeves besides that.”
McMinn County coach Bo Cagle said his team has gone to the Wing T offense this season in order to best utilize the personnel they have. He added that while the team is still working on discipline, he never has to worry about them playing hard.
While the Owls lost some talented players, Mac Bryan feels that while his team might be younger, there is no lack of talent. With over 130 players in the program, this Ooltewah team is the deepest it has ever been.
Rhea County will continue to run the Wing T, which has proven very successful for the Golden Eagle squad. Rhea County returns two 1,000-yard-plus rushers and is top-heavy in the upperclassmen area, with 15 seniors and 28 juniors. Head coach Mark Pemberton noted that there is not much depth in Evansville and he will be playing 20-25 kids per game.
Soddy-Daisy is still riding high from its first winning season since 2010. According to coach Justin Barnes, the program’s numbers are up and they will be able to two-platoon it this season.
White County has brought in its first homegrown coach, with Jerry Lowery taking over the Warriors. The Sparta football team has seen only two winning seasons in the past 30 years, so Lowery faces an uphill battle as he tries to usher in a new culture in an area that has mainly keyed in on basketball.
2016 Coaches Preseason Poll
1. Rhea County
3. Walker Valley
4. Soddy-Daisy/Cleveland (tie)
6. McMinn County
7. White County
2016 Media Preseason Poll
1. Rhea County
2. Ooltewah/Walker Valley (tie)
5. McMinn County
7. White County