Walker Valley Lone Local Left In Region 4-5A
The TSSAA reshuffle last fall fall saw Region 4-5A loose a trio of old, familiar faces adn gain one unexpected powerhouse program.
Gone to Class 6A are Cleveland High, Ooltewah and McMinn County, plus White County shifted back over the mountain to rejoin a Middle Tennessee region.
Joining holdovers Walker Valley, Rhea County and Soddy-Daisy, the state's governing body asked Lenoir City and two-time state champion Knox Catholic to make a five-team region.
"I had heard some talk about the possibility keeping White County and adding Lenoir City and possibly Oak Ridge. There had also been a little talk about maybe Franklin County, as well, but I didn't expect Knox Catholic," stated Mustang head coach Glen Ryan.
After winning a 2015 state championship, the Fighting Irish were the top-ranked team in Class 4A in the final Associated Press state poll before the playoffs began last fall. Catholic finished 10-2 falling to Fulton in the second round of the postseason.
The largest private school to choose not to go Division II, the Irish somehow got shifted out of Region 3-5A, which has four other Knoxville teams - Fulton, Karns, Powell and West - along with Oak Ridge, Campbell County and Clinton.
"I don't know what happened up there, but we hadn't heard anything about the possibility of Catholic coming into our region until it happened," Ryan related last November.
Area pundits immediately tabbed the Irish and Rhea County favorites to claim this year's region title, with Walker Valley, Soddy-Daisy and Lenoir City left to battle for the remaining two playoff berths.
"It's just part of it. Moving Knox Catholic down here just made it really a hard nosed region," assessed Ryan.
"They are a very good football team. It's one of the few private schools that was left in the public league.
"Throw them in with Rhea County and that is two solid football teams," he added. "Soddy is right there with us and I don't know about Lenoir City. They haven't had a lot of success the past seasons, but they could make it interesting."
Walker Valley has never played Catholic in the regular season and hopefully hosting them in the Corral on Friday the 13th of October isn't a bad omen.
Before falling to Fulton to end last season, the Irish had won 20 straight games, but had to forfeit last year's 63-30 victory over Morristown-West because an ineligible freshman got on the field for several plays.
"We had some turnover in our front office over the (2016) summer and there was some communication breakdown with some paperwork," head coach Steve Matthews told the media. "A freshman that played less than 15 plays in the game, in the fourth quarter, turns out wasn't eligible. We self-reported it immediately."
Matthews has compiled an impressive 41-12 record and reclaimed back-to-back Region 2-4A titles in his first four seasons at the Knoxville school.
Coincidentally, Rhea County head coach, Mark Pemberton, led the Irish from 2002-2008, going 76-11 and capturing the 2008 Class 3A championship with a perfect 15-0 season.
Pemberton is having similar success in Evensville as his four Golden Eagles squads have been a combined 42-10, with a pair of state semifinal appearances and advancing to the second round of the playoffs the other two years.
Rhea's offensive production has soared under the veteran coach's direction, averaging 37.5, 40.9, 35.2 and 36.1 points per game, respectively, since his arrival.
The two favorites will battle on Knoxville TV on Thursday, September 28, at the home of the Irish.
Going 9-3 overall and winning all six of their Region 4-5A games last year, the Eagles clawed Lenoir City 45-7 in the opening round of the playoffs before falling to eventual state champion Farragut 33-30 in the second round.
Rhea's other two losses last season were to Baylor and Cathedral High School out of Indianapolis.
In a battle of state-ranked teams at the time, an incomplete two-point conversion pass in the final two minutes of the game saw Walker Valley push Rhea to the edge, but come up just short in a 35-34 final last October.
The rematch will be played September 1 in the Corral.
Having won the last three meetings, Rhea holds a 9-3 edge in its series with the Mustangs.
Walker Valley is 4-4 in its history against Soddy-Daisy, which slipped to a 3-7 season after going 7-4 in 2015.
The Trojans are just 17-25 in Justin Barnes' four seasons.
The Mustangs, who have won four of the last five meetings blasted Soddy 61-28 last year. The teams will meet in Hamilton County in the Oct. 27 regular season finale.
Walker Valley has only faced Lenoir City once, with the Panthers claiming a 44-16 win in the opening round of the playoffs in Ryan's first year (2012) in charge.
Coach Jeff Cortez is just 8-23 in his four years at the Loudon County School.
Lenoir City went 3-8 in 2016, falling to Rhea in the playoff opener.
The Panthers will host the Mustangs on Sept. 29.
With just five teams in the region, all but one will advance to the Class 5A and will take on the top four teams from Region 3 in the opening two rounds.