The Walker Valley Mustangs face one of the biggest challenges of their season on Friday when they travel to No. 6 ranked Rhea County. Here, Zeke Westfield (2) leaps over a White County player during last Friday’s game. (Banner File Photo: Delaney Walker)
There is no question whether or not Walker Valley will be in the playoffs this season — what remains to be seen is if the Mustangs can work their way into hosting at least one of those playoff games.
“It’s definitely a big ballgame for our program, and this is a position we’ve hoped to be at this time of the year, where these two final games are big games with a lot riding on them as far as potential home field advantage for the playoffs. It’s exciting and hopefully will be a great football game,” Walker Valley head coach Glen Ryan said.
The 42-7 win over White County moved Walker Valley to 6-2 overall and 3-1 in Region 4-5A. Currently, both McMinn County and Ooltewah have the same record as the Mustangs. The region has certainly saved the most pivotal games for last, as Walker Valley must win out to earn the right to host at least a first round playoff game.
“We’d definitely have home field for the first round, and depending on what part of the bracket you’re in, could have home field advantage for the next couple rounds,” Ryan added.
Walker Valley travels to Rhea County on Friday, where it must beat the No. 6 Eagles if they hope to have a shot at hosting.
“They are definitely the best team that we’ve seen all year, in my opinion. You’re talking about a team that has been deep in the playoffs for multiple years,” the Mustang coach commented. “They are proven and a veteran ball team and are the team in our region that was picked to win it at the beginning of the year and so far they are undefeated in the region. They are the team to beat in our region if you want to be up there.”
Oh, and the region title could ultimately be on the line as well, not that the Mustangs are thinking about that at the moment.
“To have a chance at it we have to win Friday. We’re trying to not get caught up in that. Our focus ever since the McMinn loss has been to try and go 1-0 for the current week. All we’re focused on is this week, we’re not looking ahead,” Ryan said. “There’s a lot of things out there, but you can’t get caught up in thinking about it. We just want to focus on taking care of us and doing our part – not relying on anyone else to do it for us. We hold our own destiny in our hands and that’s how you want it. We have to go play football and see what happens.”
To date, the Mustangs have outscored the teams they’ve faced 377-176 and have covered 3,292 yards to their opponents’ 2,102.
Walker Valley is averaging 47 points per game and according to the coach, has seen its offense really come together over the past few weeks.
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, the Eagles are averaging roughly 36 points per game and allowing opponents an average of 19 ppg.
The potential for another high scoring shootout is there, even if Coach Ryan is hoping not to see it.
“I’d like to hope (it won’t be a shootout), but it very well could be a last-man-standing kind of thing. I definitely feel like it has the makings of a great football game from a fan standpoint, but it might be a nightmare for the coaches,” he commented.
Rhea’s only two losses have come to Baylor and to Indiana football powerhouse Indianapolis Cathedral. So far this season, only those two teams plus Cleveland have managed to score more than two touchdowns against the Eagles.
“The key to this game is finding a way to slow down their offense and meanwhile keep our offensive productivity going and they are looking at doing the same thing too,” Ryan stated. “Like any big ball game, it comes down to who can execute the best, who will make the fewest mistakes and who is going to win special team battles.”
The Eagles are especially a threat on offense with their top-notch running game, but according to the Mustang coach, their defense is one of the best in the area as well.
“We’ve got to do a good job of filling the lanes, having good fits and swarming to the football. We’ve got to slow that running attack of theirs down, and not let them grind it out and wear us down. If we can make some stops and not be on the field the whole game defensively, and our offense can go out and do what it’s supposed to do, that will be key,” Ryan explained.
“They are a very good defensive football team. Their front line is big and physical and their two inside linebackers are as good as any I’ve seen. They are well coached and have a lot of veterans out there too. We’re definitely not thinking that we will go out there and be able to run the ball up and down the field. We’re seeing the best defense that we’ve seen all year.”
Playing at Rhea County and coming away with a win has long been known as a difficult task, but Walker Valley is ready to step up to the challenge.
“I know it will be a great atmosphere, but anytime you go to a program that is established like Rhea County, it’s their home and they have a proud tradition. It’s always tough going up against powerhouse teams like that — that’s their house and you have to go in and try to take something away from them.”
Running back Alex King, who currently has 599 yards on 126 carries, has been Walker Valley’s leading scorer with 14 touchdowns, 13 rushing and one receiving, for a total of 84 points. Receiver Cooper Melton follows with 10 TDs for 60 points. Melton has 32 receptions for 588 yards.
“I hope we’re able to run the ball enough to keep them off balance. I feel like our receivers match up good there and hopefully we can throw the ball well and get after them,” Ryan commented.
Quarterback Kolten Gibson has a 66 percent completion rate and has thrown for 1,821 yards and 20 touchdowns. The QB has also covered 277 yards by foot and ran in seven TD’s of his own.
Gibson has some very capable hands to throw to this season, with basically any receiver targeted being able to clear a first down. Bryce Nunnelly, who has 560 yards and six touchdowns on 29 receptions, averages 19.3 yards a catch, while Melton is averaging 18.4 yards a catch.
Zeke Westfield averages 13 yards a reception, Zach Eslinger has an average of 12.9 yards and Tucker Mendenhall is averaging 11.9 yards a catch.
“We’ve had a good week of practice and I think our guys are focused on taking care of business. If we’re going to put it all together, it needs to be Friday,” Ryan declared. “I hope everybody comes out because they should see a good football game.”
Kickoff is schedule for 7:30 p.m. at Rhea County.