Walker Valley receiver Cooper Melton (31) manages to match a catch in the end zone despite being swarmed by Rhea County players. (Photo: George Norkus)
EVENSVILLE — Heartbreaker.
There’s really no other word that could better sum up Walker Valley’s one-point loss to Rhea County Friday night.
“It was a heartbreaker. We had some chances (to win),” Walker Valley head coach Glen Ryan said after his team’s 35-34 loss.
Despite having battled back from a two-touchdown deficit twice, the Mustangs’ (6-3, 3-2) hope of being the first Region 4-5A team to defeat the Golden Eagles (7-2, 5-0) this year was silenced with 1:57 left in the game, as their 2-point conversion pass proved unsuccessful.
It was eerily reminiscent to last year’s double overtime loss to Ooltewah, where a failed 2-point conversion attempt resulted in a 45-44 loss.
Still, coach Ryan had absolutely no doubt the 2-point attempt was the only call that could have been made at that point.
“When you’re playing on the road against a team that can just grind it out (you have to go for two). We’re a big play team, and we felt like that was our best shot,” he explained.
The loss may have stung, but the Mustangs still managed to send a message to teams in the area.
“This bunch isn’t going to just roll over. I just can’t say enough about their heart,” the coach began.
“I wanted so badly to see them get over that hump, but we’re 6-3, we’re in the playoffs, and we have another big game next week. It’s like I said to the kids, win, lose or draw, this is behind us now. We’ve got to focus on next week and work on trying to go 1-0 next week.”
You see, unlike last year where a missed 2-point conversion cost them a spot in the playoffs, the Week 10 loss to the Eagles only served as a minor setback, since the Mustangs had solidified a playoff appearance with their win over White County last week.
The No. 10-ranked Mustangs and No. 6-ranked Eagles put on quite a show for the crowd Friday night. Rhea was able to cover 339 yards and score five on 57 carries, but Walker Valley’s big play potential showed up in a big way as quarterback Kolten Gibson threw for 277 yards and four touchdowns.
Those 277 yards pushed Gibson past the 5,000 career passing yard mark, leaving him with a total of 5,152 yards.
To truly understand how closely matched the two teams were, it helps to know that both finished with a total of 343 yards and five touchdowns. The only difference and ultimately the deciding factor in the game was the Eagles were able to successfully get a 2-point conversion while the Mustangs were not.
Walker Valley managed to get the only touchdown in the first quarter, as Alex King’s third rushing attempt from the 1-yard line with 2:17 left to play in the quarter proved successful. Kicker Sam Gibson, who was playing in his first game back from a concussion, put the ball through uprights to give the Mustangs a 7-0 lead over their hosts. The kicker was 4-for-4 on his extra point attempts.
Rhea County’s ground-and-pound offense left them positioned just one yard out from scoring at the end of the first quarter.
Just three seconds into the second quarter, Mason Stephenson carried the ball into the end zone, but a failed extra point attempt left Walker Valley up 7-6.
The Mustangs took a 14-6 lead with 10:14 on the clock after Zach Eslinger caught a 25-yard pass from Gibson.
Walker Valley’s lead lasted nearly five more minutes.
Christian Simon ran the ball in 14 yards with 5:53 remaining in the first half and then carried the ball in for 2-points, which tied the game at 14.
The Eagles got their first lead of the night 50 seconds later thanks to a ‘Pick-6’ from Chris Sturgeon. Sturgeon picked off a Walker Valley pass and ran it in 31 yards to make it 21-14.
“We kind of sputtered around a little in the first half and didn’t take advantage of some things,” Ryan stated. “We had five possessions and came out with two scores, and then we had the ‘Pick-6’ that hurt us right there.”
The Eagles started out the second half with possession of the ball and burned through nearly half of the third quarter before Stephenson ran the ball in one yard at 6:24 to make it 28-14.
Walker Valley was not willing to go down without a fight though, and with 2:38 left in the third quarter, Gibson connected with Cooper Melton for a 39 yard TD pass.
A minute into the fourth quarter Rhea County’s Eddie Davis took the ball in four yards for the home team’s final TD of the night, and once again the Mustangs found themselves trailing by two touchdowns.
“We bounced back in the second half. I thought our defense stepped up and did a pretty good job; we made some big stops and offense started playing,” the Walker Valley coach said.
With 6:07 remaining, Gibson connected with Eslinger again for a 40 yard touchdown pass.
The quarterback fired off his last TD pass of the night, a 47-yarder to Melton, with 1:57 left in the game. After the 2-point conversion failed, the Mustangs attempted an onside kick, which didn’t pan out in their favor.
“We didn’t get the 2-point conversion, so we had to kick onside again. It didn’t quite go 10 yards, and that was the ball game,” Ryan detailed.
King carried the ball 15 times for a total of 66 yards and a touchdown, while the Mustang quarterback picked up 29 yards on seven carries. A bad snap to the punter and a loss of 14 yards on a carry by Bryce Nunnelly left Walker Valley with a total of 66 yards rushing.
Melton had six catches for 163 and two touchdowns and has set a new school record for most receiving yards in a season with 751 total. He also has the most receiving TDs in Walker Valley’s history with 12.
Eslinger had five receptions for 103 yards and two touchdowns.
Rhea County running back Cody Bice had 21 carries for 140 yards. Christian Simon had 14 rushes for 110 yards, and Mason Stephenson had 67 yards on 15 carries.
Walker Valley is only the fourth team to score over two touchdowns against Rhea this year and one of three teams that has put up more than 30 points on the board.
The Mustangs finish out the regular season on Friday when they host Ooltewah (7-2, 4-1).
Walker Valley 7 7 7 13 — 34
Rhea County 0 21 7 7 — 35
WV — Alex King 1 run (Sam Gibson kick), 2:17
RC — Mason Stephenson 1 run (kick failed), 11:57
WV — Zach Eslinger 25 pass from Kolten Gibson (S. Gibson kick), 10:14
RC — Christian Simon 14 run (Simon 2pt run), 5:53
RC — Chris Sturgeon 31 interception return (Luke Medows kick), 5:03
RC — Stephenson 1 run (Medows kick), 6:24
WV — Cooper Melton 39 pass from K. Gibson (S. Gibson kick), 2:38
RC — Eddie Davis 4 run (Medows kick), 10:58
WV — Eslinger 40 pass from K. Gibson (S. Gibson kick), 6:07
WV — Melton 47 pass from K. Gibson (2 pt failed), 1:57
First downs WV 11 RC 17
Rushes-yards WV 24-66 RC 57-339
Passing yards WV 277 RC 4
Total yards WV 343 RC 343
Comp-Att-Int WV 14-23-1 RC 2-2-0
Fumbles-Lost WV 1-0 RC 2-0
Penalties WV 1-10 RC 8-69
Alex King 15-66 TD
Kolten Gibson 7-29
Bryce Nunnelly 1-14
Cody Bice 21-140
Christian Simons 14-110
Mason Stephenson 15-67
Kolten Gibson 14-23-1, 277 4TD’s
Zack Pemberton 2-2-0, 4
Cooper Melton 6-163, 2 TD’s
Zach Eslinger 5-103, 2 TD’s
Alex King 3-11
Walker Valley 6-3, 3-2 Region 4-5A
Rhea County 7-2, 5-0 Region 4-5A.
Walker Valley receiver Zach Eslinger (15) caught a 25-yard touchdown pass to give the Mustangs a 14-6 lead over the Eagles with 10:14 remaining in the second quarter, Friday at Rhea County. (Photo: George Norkus)