Walker Valley running back Alex King (33) works to break free from the grasp of McMinn County’s Julion Santos (8) during Friday’s game in Athens. (Photo: George Norkus)
ATHENS — The weather was perfect, the crowd was electric, but unfortunately for the Walker Valley Mustangs, those were the only positives in their first Region 4-5A game of the season.
Walker Valley proved to be its own worst enemy on Friday night, giving up a 21-7 lead and falling to the Cherokees 24-21.
“We shot ourselves in the foot too many times offensively. It should have never come down to this,” Mustang head coach Glen Ryan lamented.
The northern Bradley County squad had four turnovers in the game, two of which gave McMinn County the chance to reach the end zone on the resulting possessions. Walker Valley also had a touchdown called back due to penalties on both teams.
“Offense is supposed to be our strength and we sputtered around all night, turned the ball over and didn’t take care of business. That’s what happens — it was just one of those games,” Ryan said.
The Tribe got on the board with 3:13 left in the first quarter, following a fumble recovery on their own 14-yard line. Five plays later, Xavier Abernathy carried the ball 54 yards and Kirk Lockmiller’s extra point attempt put the home team up 7-0.
Walker Valley answered almost two minutes later and capped off a seven-play drive with a 44-yard touchdown pass from Kolten Gibson to Bryce Nunnelly. Sam Gibson’s kick tied the game up at seven.
Nunnelly reached the end zone again early in the second quarter, but offsetting penalties negated the touchdown and the down was replayed.
The fumble bug bit again and two plays later the Mustangs fumbled the ball and it was recovered by the Cherokees on their 24. Walker Valley’s defense went to work to make sure that McMinn was unable to capitalize on the turnover this time and forced a quick three-and-out.
Taking over at their own 47, the Mustangs took a 14-7 lead two plays later thanks to a 13-yard run by Alex King at 5:14 in the second quarter. King reached the pay dirt a second time on a 1-yard run with just 35 seconds left in the half.
With a 21-7 lead over the Tribe at halftime, Walker Valley seemed poised for success in the second half.
That could not have been any further from the truth.
Perhaps knowing that it was McMinn head coach Bo Cagle’s birthday helped to spur the Cherokees on, as the team scored 17 unanswered points over the next 24 minutes.
The Mustangs fumbled the ball on their opening play of the third quarter, which set the Tribe up for their second TD of the night.
It was Abernathy who once again crossed into the end zone at 6:57 in the third, this time on a 2-yard run.
Walker Valley’s 21-14 lead dwindled away during the fourth quarter.
Taking over possession of the ball with 8:31 left in the game, McMinn marched their way from their own 34-yard line to Walker Valley’s 12, picking up four first downs along the way. Quarterback Bradley Hayes connected with Tabre Abernathy seven minutes later on a fourth-and-7 play. Lockmiller’s kick effectively tied the game up at 21.
A bad kick positioned the Mustangs at McMinn’s 48-yard line, and Gibson was able to connect with Tucker Mendenhall and Zach Eslinger to move the team to the 28. Three incomplete passes ended the drive and turned the ball over to the Cherokees.
McMinn managed to carry the ball to Walker Valley’s 15 before deciding to go for the game-winning 31-yard field goal with just seven seconds left on the clock.
Another series of bad kicks positioned Walker Valley within scoring range on McMinn’s 35 with two seconds left on the clock. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, a last ditch touchdown pass attempt was thwarted by the Tribe in the end zone.
“We let them hang in and had opportunity after opportunity to put this game away. The longer we let them hang in, the more confident they got and they found a way to get it done, we didn’t — that’s all I can say about it,” Ryan stated.
Walker Valley had a total of only 64 yards on 21 carries, with Gibson having 37 yards on eight carries and King getting two touchdowns and 27 yards on 13 carries.
The Mustang QB completed 15-of-26 pass attempts and had a total of 192 yards, one interception and a touchdown.
Nunnelly was Gibson’s leading target with five catches for 74 yards and a TD.
The Cherokees had a total of 222 yards, with 139 coming on foot and 83 passing.
Walker Valley travels to Coffee County Friday for a meeting with the Red Raiders.
Walker Valley 7 14 0 0 — 21
McMinn County 7 0 7 10 — 24
MC — Xavier Abernathy 54 run (Kirk Lockmiller kick), 3:13
WV — Bryce Nunnelly 44 pass from Kolten Gibson (Sam Gibson kick), 1:17
WV — Alex King 13 run (Gibson kick), 5:14
WV — King 1 run (Gibson kick), 0:35
MC — Abernathy 2 run (Lockmiller kick), 6:57
MC — Tabre Abernathy 12 pass from Bradley Hayes (Lockmiller kick), 1:36
MC — Lockmiller 32 field goal, 0:07
First downs WV 15 MC 18
Rushes-yards WV 21-64 MC 33-139
Passing yards WV 192 MC 83
Total yards WV 256 MC 222
Comp-Att-Int WV 15-26-1 MC 8-17-3
Punts -Ave. WV 02-35.5 MC 2-36.5
Fumbles-Lost WV 4-4 MC 1-1
Penalties WV 6-39 MC 12-81
Kolten Gibson 8-37
Alex King 13-27 2 TD
Xavier Abernathy 22-161, 2 TD
Tabre Abernathy 6-31
Zane Byas 13-24
Julion Santos 5-23
Gibson 15-26-1, 192
Bradley Hayes 8-17-3, 83
Bryce Nunnelly 5-74 TD
Zach Eslinger 3-34
Cooper Melton 3-32
Tucker Mendenhall 3-25
Walker Valley 1-2, 0-1 Region 4-5A
McMinn County 2-1, 1-0 Region 4-5A.