Walker Valley junior Eli Hancock looks for running room in Thursday's season opener against Central, at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga. Hancock impressed in the return game and caught a touchdown in a 40-28 defeat. (Banner Photo - Patrick MacCoon)
CHATTANOOGA — For a young Walker Valley football team with nearly three-fourths of its starters just sophomores, a return trip to the Kickoff Classic at Finley Stadium mixed the good with the bad.
Lightning struck uncomfortably close to the stadium just one play into the game, causing more than an hour's delay – which was followed by a blinding purple flash.
Spearheaded by Michael McGhee and Hunter Jones, Chattanooga Central pounded its way for 396 rushing yards in a 40-28 season opening victory lasting 3 1/2 hours Thursday night.
While the Mustangs recovered three fumbles and played fiery on their first two defensive stands, missed tackles and youthful mistakes were too much to overcome.
The Purple Pounders scored four touchdowns from 65 yards out or longer.
"This game came down to the little things," said WVHS head coach Glen Ryan. "We lost containment on several plays and had special teams breakdowns too. We have to execute better. Every play is important."
Charlie Swafford's 38-yard field goal gave the Mustangs the first score with 3:22 left in the first quarter, thanks to a big fourth down stop defensively to take over on their opponent's 21.
WV's offense was stagnant in the first half, with just 66 yards of total offense.
The game appeared destined for a running clock and a blowout as Central led 34-3 with 6:30 left in the third quarter.
The Pounders had already totaled 361 yards on the ground and were enforcing their will.
"Our guys never quit," said Coach Ryan. "They could have given up several times, but instead they chose to fight until the end. That is a positive for us to build on. We have to learn to take baby steps right now instead of big ones."
Not giving up their pride, the Mustangs scored four times over the final 15 minutes, with many stepping in to an awakened offense.
Filling the shoes of record-setting quarterback and four-year starter Kolten Gibson is no small task.
Junior Griffin Broome showed improvements late, as he threw for 91 yards and rushed for another 40 in the second half.
A strong-willed sophomore running back in Heath Tanksley overcame a sickness and game-time decision availability to rush for 94 yards on just 13 carries.
With a head full of steam, Walker Valley handed him the ball eight more times in the second half as Tanksley proved he was at full strength. His 32-yard touchdown run up the middle with several broken tackles provided a strong highlight.
Central put the game out of hand by returning a kick for 90 yards to go ahead 40-16 with 9:09 left to play.
One of several up-and-coming sophomores for the Mustangs was shown in the play of Reid Gibson.
Watching his older brother, Brock, sail for nearly 700 yards and 10 scores last season, Reid hauled in a game-high seven passes for 55 yards.
He made an NFL-like toe touch grab down the right sideline for a gain of 21 yards as Broome fired it just over the defensive back's hands. Gibson finished a scoring drive with a leaping grab in the back right of the end zone for a 19-yard score.
Broome threw two touchdown strikes and showed off his mobility with a 15-yard cut-back rushing score for the first touchdown of the season for WV with 3:28 left in the third quarter.
Junior kick return specialist and wide receiver Eli Hancock hauled in a wide open 9-yard score for the final points of the battle with two minutes left.
Hancock had 108 return yards on five kickoff returns, to go with three catches for 30 yards.
The Mustangs struggled in the season opener on third downs, as the offense averaged just 1.6 yards on 16 conversion attempts (5-of-16). They went three-and-out six times.
The Purple Pounders were not at top form either, with 1-of-9 third down conversions, but had enough big plays to last.
Walker Valley's defense was led by Spencer Wilson with 12 tackles (2 TFL), while Clint Davis totaled nine stops and one sack.
Dylan Jenkins had 11 stops, followed by eight from Mikey Humphries and Chris Crenshaw. Linebackers Kallum Lowe and Kellar Carson each had seven stops.
Wilson recovered the fumbles along with Kendrick Cox and Bryce Hixson.
The Mustangs will receive no early season gifts schedule-wise, as the second of three road trips to start the season will take them to Bradley Central next Friday.
"This team has to rely on a group effort this year," Ryan said. "We don't have two guys to lean on. We have to go out and execute the little things and come up big in critical times. Still, there are some positives to build on."
Chattanooga Central 7 13 14 6 — 40
Walker Valley 3 0 7 18 — 28
WV — Charlie Swafford 38 field goal, 3:22
C — Hunter Jones 65 run (Jameson Willard kick), 1:54
C — Jay Jones 40 pass from Jaheim Jones (Willard kick), 8:12
C — Michael McGhee 71 run (kick failed), 6:25
C — Hunter Jones 89 run (Willard kick), 11:37
C — Tracy Odom 1 run (Willard kick), 6:19
WV — Griffin Broome 15 run (Swafford kick), 3:28
WV — Heath Tanksley 32 run (pass failed), 9:25
C — Tracy Odom 90 kickoff return (run failed), 9:09
WV — Reid Gibson 19 pass from Broome (pass failed), 7:17
WV — Eli Hancock 9 pass from Broome (pass failed), 2:01
First Downs; Central 16, Walker Valley 18
Rushes-Yards; Central 40-396, Walker Valley 41-159
Passing; Central 39, Walker Valley102
Total Yards; Central 435, Walker Valley 261
Comp-Att-Int;Central 1-3-0, Walker Valley 13-25-1
Punts-Avg.;Central 4-30, Walker Valley 7-29.1
Fumbles-Lost; Central 4-3; Walker Valley 0-0
Penalties-Yards;Central 8-87;Walker Valley 7-55
Hunter Jones 7-171
Michael McGhee 18-130
Tracy Odom 5-78
Heath Tanksley 13-94
Griffin Broome 17-45
Avery Gray 10-19
Eli Hancock 1-1
Jaheim Jones 1-3 39
Broome 12-24-1 84
Jay Jones 1-39
Reid Gibson 7-55
Eli Hancock 3-30
Brody Swafford 2-22
Tanksley 1- (5).
Junior Quarterback Griffin Broome unleashes a pass in Walker Valley's season opener. Broome led four scoring drives in the second half after a slow start. (Banner Photo: Patrick MacCoon)
Mustang receiver Reid Gibson goes upfield with one of his seven catches. The sophomore go-to wideout led all recievers with 55 yards in a loss to Chattanooga Central Thursday at Finley Stadium. (Banner Photo: Patrick MacCoon)