The Walker Valley Mustangs will open Round 1 of the state 5A playoffs Friday on the road against the Oak Ridge Wildcats. (Banner Photo: Lynnae Roberts)
Although Walker Valley stumbled a few times during the regular season, the preseason goal of reaching the postseason becomes a reality Friday night when the Mustangs tangle with Oak Ridge in the first round of the 5A playoffs.
“We made it this far. We kind of had some hiccups along the way, but we’re here and we’re excited. I feel like we have a great opportunity this week. We feel like we can match up with Oak Ridge and we just have to go play football,” said Mustangs head coach Glen Ryan.
Walker Valley goes up against an 8-2 Wildcats team that finished at the top of Region 3-5A with a perfect 5-0 record. The Mustangs head into their first playoff game since 2014 with a 6-4 overall mark and finished 3-3 in Region 4. Game time is set for 7 p.m. in Oak Ridge.
“Oak Ridge is a good football team. They are 8-2 and play in a good region. They have a lot of history and have had a lot of success over the years. They have good skill people and are big up front. We’ve just got to go play,” Ryan stated. “But, we’ve played good teams. We didn’t play good against Ooltewah, but we took Rhea County to one point."
“McMinn, everybody kind of wrote them off but as it turned out they are a pretty good football team. We lost to them by three. We’ve played some teams that are up there and we feel that has gotten us ready to face the teams we are getting ready to see. We’ve seen a good combination of teams that has helped us get ready to this point.”
The Mustangs will have to overcome a poor performance against Ooltewah in the regular season finale to have a shot at moving on to Round 2.
“Offensively it wasn’t bad. We had some opportunities early I wish we had taken advantage of,” Ryan recalled. “Once the flood gates opened we just didn’t do a good job at all of stopping them. We watched film on Sunday and showed them where we got to playing a little bit sloppy. We didn’t do a good job with our fix and they started hurting us.
“Then we started running around not trusting anything and playing backyard football. It snowballed. We know that. It was embarrassing for our defense the way we played the second half. We’ve got to bounce back. We had been getting better as the year went on but we just reverted back to our old ways Friday night and we can’t do that."
“It’s a brand-new season. The only thing it’s one game at a time now for real. We’ve got to give our best. We told the guys they have to be ready to play. Nobody is off limits from here on out; you need to play where we need you to play to give us the best shot of winning."
“You get no do-overs from here on out. There are none. You win and you come back the next week. You lose and you turn your stuff in. There are no more tomorrows. That’s the nature of the beast when you get to this time.”
The Wildcats will go against the Mustangs with an arsenal of formidable weapons not the least of which is receiver Tee Higgins, a Clemson commit still being pursued by the University of Tennessee.
“We have to be aware of where he is. They like to move him around and do different things with him. We have to be aware, but we won’t change a lot of stuff,” said Ryan. “There will be times in different situations where we will try and bracket him and make sure he is not the guy who hurts us. Other than that we are going to play our coverage and play sound. If we do that we will be OK.”
Ryan and staff are expecting an all-out brawl in the trenches when the teams meet. After progressing throughout the course of the year, the Mustangs took it on the chin against Ooltewah. But Ryan says the team if more than capable of putting points on the board and the Mustangs are working hard to fix last week’s problems on defense. As it has been the last 10 games, the focus will be on ball security, tackling and special teams.
“It’s hard to ever tell about 16- and 17-year-olds’ minds, but I feel like we are going to be ready. We will know more as the week progresses but we are approaching this week to get ready for a game that we expect to be a hard-fought, physical football game. We’re going to have to bow up and play a hard-fought-physical game as well. We’ve got to do the same things we have to do every week. We have to take care of the football on offense.
“We have to put points on the board when we have opportunities and we need to do a good job on defense and keep them to a minimum. They are going to get their plays but we’ve got to keep them down to a minimum,” Ryan explained.
“We’ve got to be sound on special teams. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first game of the year or whether it’s a supposed cupcake opponent or whether it’s the playoffs."
“Those three things (offense, defense, special teams) are the three elements in football you had better be good at if you want to win football games. You’ve got to win all three. The better the teams are the more that becomes true. You have to win all three phases."
“That’s what we focus on, ball security on offense. We focus on tackling on defense and we focus on making sure our special teams are sound. It doesn’t always happen that way, but those are our three focuses every week. We’ve got to go out and do a good job of that and get back to believing in the system and trusting your fits and attacking the football and not sitting back and waiting. It’s not a complicated thing, it’s just a matter of going and doing it.”
Ryan said the difference between the Oak Ridge game and the teams the Mustangs have faced in previous playoff games is the matchups. This time he feels the player-on-player differences are more to the team’s liking, and if all 11 do their jobs on the field, the outcome could work out in favor of Walker Valley.
“I like our chances. I feel like we match up very well with them. In the couple of years that we’ve been to the playoffs before we were going to go battle and do our best, but I didn’t feel like we matched up well. I felt like we were outmanned. I don’t feel that way this time,” he said. “This team can score with anybody. We’ve just got to do a good job defensively and make sure we wrap up when we tackle.”