Walker Valley senior running back Alex King (33) will be looking for running room against the Bradley defense Thursday evening, as the eighth-ranked (5A) Mustangs stampede into Bear Stadium to face the fifth-ranked (6A) Black-and-Gold to open the new TSSAA gridiron season. (Banner File Photo)
As if the season-opening “County Conflict” needed any more hype, Tuesday it became a state-ranked rumble.
When the much-anticipated clash of county teams open the TSSAA football season Thursday evening, it will be an eighth-ranked (5A) Walker Valley herd stampeding into the Bear’s Den to face the fifth-ranked (6A) Bradley Central sleuth.
Both local teams were recognized by Associated Press sports writers from across the state when the preseason poll came out Tuesday, adding fuel to the fan frenzy that is already at a fever pitch, as supporters of both squads are expecting big seasons from their favorite teams.
“This has turned into something very exciting,” proclaimed Mustang head coach Glen Ryan. “The community is really talking about it and there’s a lot of excitement on both sides.
“It’s a tough situation in that you want your kids pumped up, but not to the point where nerves cause mistakes or we wear ourselves out before the game,” he added. “We are going to have to focus on football and not the hype.”
While last year was Walker Valley’s first time to start a season against a rival, Bradley has been doing so for several years.
“Were used to a rivalry game to start the season after playing them (Walker Valley) last year, plus opening with Polk County the previous six years,” declared Bear head coach Damon Floyd. “We can’t let the state ranking go to our heads. We’ve haven’t played a game, so nobody has proven anything yet.
“It’s a difficult situation in that with it being the first game, you’re more likely to make mistakes that can really hurt you,” he added. “You are trying to get things done you need to do in any first game, but the fact that you are having to do it against a rival team, magnifies it.”
Both coaches expressed great respect for their Thursday night opponents long before the state rankings came out.
“Walker Valley scored against everybody last year. They put 44 points on Ooltewah in their final game last season and just missed the playoffs, plus they beat a pair of state champions in scrimmages this offseason — Ravenwood in the spring game and Knox Catholic the other day,” remarked Coach Floyd.
The Mustangs averaged 35.7 points per game, scoring 40-plus points in four of their 10 contests in 2015, and have all but one of the offensive starters back this season.
“They have as much firepower as anyone we’ll face this season,” proclaimed Floyd.
“They have so many weapons. (Kolten) Gibson, their quarterback, is a dual threat that can throw or run. They are dangerous on the edges with a slew of receivers including (Bryce) Nunnelly, (Cooper) Melton, (Zach) Eslinger and (Tucker) Mendenhall, plus (Alex) King is a tough running back that can find the holes.”
A three-year starter, Gibson completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,112 yards and 18 TDs as a sophomore last season, plus rushed for 496 yards and eight scores.
The four Mustang receivers are all in the school’s Top 10 all-time in receiving yards, with Melton and Nunnelly, a recent UTC commit, first and second respectively, in receptions, yardage and touchdowns.
King is a dual threat, second in Mustang history in rushing with 2,089 career yards and third in receptions with 48 for 499 yards. He has found paydirt 29 times.
“They make you defend the whole field. You can’t just focus on one or two. They have several players that are able to take it to the house,” said Floyd, who is also the Bear defensive coordinator. “We’ve got to be disciplined on our assignments. If we make a mistake, they’ll make us pay.”
Ryan echoed Floyd’s view when he discussed the Bear offense.
“They have an all-state quarterback who hurts you throwing or running, plus they have some good receivers that are able to get yards after the catch.
“We’ve got to play great defense and not let up. We can’t give up the big plays. We have to make them drive the length of the field. We can’t let them get big first downs on third and long situations,” he assessed.
“They are the big dogs of the county and will be until somebody knocks them off,” Ryan declared.
Like the Mustangs, Bradley returns the majority (nine) of the unit that put up 355 points and nearly 4,500 yards of offense while going 7-4 last season.
Senior signal caller Cole Copeland also completed 64 percent of his passes in 2015, throwing for 2,451 yards and rushing for 862. He had a hand in 39 TDs.
The 6-foot-4, 200 pounder is on the verge of surpassing his older brother, Bryce, for the Southeast Tennessee record in all-purpose yards (8,204) and touchdowns (85).
The last of five Copelands who have quarterbacked the Bears, Cole, who also recently verbally committed to play for nationally ranked UTC, currently has 6,863 yards and 71 touchdowns in just 22 starts.
While leading receiver Tyler Carpenter graduated, Bradley has plenty of pass catchers returning with Nick Howell (35 for 459 yards, 2 TDs) and Lameric Tucker (50 for 553, 6 TDs) leading the pack.
The Bears also have running back Devin Moore, who averaged just under five yards a carry, returning after breaking his leg in the fifth game last season. He will pair with Adam Mullis (227 yards) to carry the rushing load this season.
Both teams have veteran lineman up front to lead the attack.
The big question going into the all-important opener is which defense will be able to slow down the other team’s offense, plus how will the special teams come into play.
In last year’s 34-27 Bear victory, Bradley’s Cason Still returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a score, but King returned the favor with an 88-yard dash to paydirt on a second quarter kick return.
The offenses dominated the first half in 2015, but after the intermission, it was the defenses that took over, with each team finding the end zone just once in the final 24 minutes of play.
“We have to be solid in all aspects of the game — offense, defense, special teams. They can hurt us many different ways, if we aren’t sharp,” proclaimed Coach Ryan. “In this type of game it’s usually the team that makes the fewest mistakes the wins.”
“We have to match their output. Last year is last year. The history of this series (10-1 in favor of the Bears) has no bearing on this game,” declared Coach Floyd. “It’s all about who makes the least amount of mistakes — penalties, turnovers, field position — and executes, these are the things that are going to matter.”
“What a better way to kick off the season than with a great atmosphere, a great crowd and great excitement as two very good teams clash,” he added.
After splitting the last two games, which were both played at “The Corral,” the Bears are glad to be playing this one at home.
“We played at there place twice in a row, so it’s nice to have them come here,” remarked Floyd.
“Bradley is a tough team and to have to play them on their home field will make it even tougher,” commented Ryan.
Both coaches also agreed on one last point — no matter the outcome, their team can’t let it affect the rest of the season.
“Losing that close one last year threw us and affected us for two or three weeks,” expressed Ryan. “This is such a big emotional game, but it’s still just one game and it’s no even a region game, so it has no affect on our playoff hopes.”
“Of course you want to get the win to start your season off right, but either way come the next day, you’ve got to put it out of the way and start planning for the next opponent,” related Floyd.
Whatever the outcome, Bradley County football fans are in for a dandy of a game and a great way to start the new season off.