Walker Valley will go toe-to-toe with the Hixson Wildcats Friday in their home opener. Here, receiver Tucker Mendenhall (20) jukes around Bradley Central linebacker Jay Person during last Thursday’s season opener at Bradley. (Banner Photo - Saralyn Norkus)
Last year, the loss to Bradley Central in the season opener knocked a lot of wind out of the sails of the Walker Valley football team. The Mustangs finally began to find their legs later in the season, but the emotional damage had already been done, and catching up proved to be a little too much.
With a loss to the Bears again this year, the Mustangs must find a way to put last week behind them and forge ahead to put together a successful season.
“I feel like some of our young guys had a wake-up call. We’ve made a few changes because we thought some guys were ready to go and they weren’t. We made some changes to shore up some problems,” said Mustangs coach Glen Ryan.
A particular area the Mustangs have focused on this week is special teams, an area that suffered against the Bears.
“It all came down to special teams. You lose a ballgame by 12, and 24 points were directly connected to special teams,” Ryan acknowledged. “You can’t win many ballgames like that, especially big ball games. That’s (special teams) one of those things players tend to take for granted.
“I told them on Monday, we can’t do anything about that game. It’s a tough game. It’s a pride game in the community, but it’s over. Fortunately, it’s one of those games that, that is all it is, is a pride game,” he continued. “We have our whole season in front of us, all our goals are still out there in front of us. Hopefully, we use that and move on. We can’t go back and we can’t change it. But what we can do is learn from it and become a better football team. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
On the whole, Ryan wasn’t disappointed in the play of a Mustang defense that found itself backed against the wall a large portion of the night. Offensively, he said the Mustangs did OK but there is much improvement that needs to take place before this week’s battle with the Hixson Wildcats.
“It wasn’t bad; we put 28 points on the board,” Ryan said of his offensive unit. “In reality, other than the short fields and special teams mistakes, the defense didn’t play too badly either. They scored 16 points having to drive the ball. It wasn’t bad, it could have been better. There is still room for improvement. We’ve still got some work to do from Week 1 to Week 2. That’s where we should see a big improvement. Some of it was due to the fact that you blink an eye and we were down 14 points.”
Traditionally, many coaches feel a team’s biggest improvement comes between Week 1 and Week 2. Ryan feels the Mustangs are on track to make those improvements, but is concerned about the difference between his veteran units and those Mustangs who are less seasoned.
“I feel like we are (making good progress). This is an unusual team,” said Ryan. “My concern is with our depth. We have our older guys that are starting offensively or defensively, then we have really young guys or very inexperienced guys. We don’t have that middle, average, good hard-nosed guy that can pass [through] athletic ability. The guy who is not a starter but is not far away. We are either up here or down here. When we go scout team, we either have to go ones on ones all the time to get a look, or we have to go against our scout team and we don’t get any look. That is frustrating, because it always leaves you wondering just where you are at.”
Ryan acknowledged he has made some practice changes in order to better gage where the team stands, but feels the team is coming on in important matters.
“I don’t feel like we played that bad a game. I feel if it weren’t for the special team mistakes people would have gotten everything they came to see. They would have gotten a heck of a football game that would have gone down to the wire,” said Ryan. “But, it is what it is. That didn’t happen. It looked a little lopsided, but as bad as we played we lost by 12.”
Hixson will not be an easy target. Although coming off a big loss to Marion County, Ryan knows the Wildcats will be looking, as are the Mustangs, to get into the win column and will be ready for a four-quarter battle.
“They are hard-nosed and physical. Last year it was a scrap. They came out and got physical with us. We had to really knuckle down and play. There is no week we can sit back and say, ‘We can coast this week.’ We’re not that kind of football team,” he said.
“There is a lot riding on this year. There are a lot of high expectations. We don’t need to go out and overlook anybody. We need to be focused in and take care of business, not sit there and be up and down depending on who we are playing. There is a lot riding on this team. We’ve got to go take care of business. We’ve got to get after it and right the ship and do a better job than we did last week.”
Friday night’s combat with Hixson will be an important test for the Mustangs as far as staying strong enough mentally to leave last week’s loss in the past and move forward with building a solid season. Ryan likes the Mustangs’ chances if they play football the way he feels they are capable but impressed the fact the night could come down again to defense and specials teams.
“I feel like it’s going to be a good matchup. They’ve got skill guys and break some things and make some big plays. We’ve got skill guys,” he said. “It’s going to come down to how well our defense stops their offense. We’ve got to win the special teams battle. We’ve got to play the same as we needed against Bradley, good defense and special teams. I feel if we do that we have a good shot.”