Walker Valley Sophomore running back Heath Tanksley (25) is second in the area with 269 rushing yards, and is looking to add to that total Friday evening as 11th-ranked Stone Memorial rolls into "The Corral." (Photo: Nikki Swafford)
After a trio of road trips to open the fall football season, Walker Valley is happy to be at home Friday evening.
"The opener was considered a home game for us, but it was in Chattanooga (at Finley Stadium)," related Mustang head coach Glen Ryan from the school's fieldhouse Wednesday afternoon. "We're glad to finally get to play here. The guys are excited to have a home crowd cheering for them."
Enduring some expected difficulties against tough opponents, Walker Valley is still looking for its first win of the season, but getting that against a state-ranked and unbeaten Stone Memorial crew is a tall order.
"Nobody can say we dodged tough competition," remarked Ryan as each of the Mustangs' first four opponents have been ranked in The Associated Press' state prep poll at some point this season.
The very young Herd started the season with just a half dozen seniors, only four of whom had any varsity experience.
Making a strong comeback in the second half, Walker Valley dropped its second straight 40-28 tally to Chattanooga Central, which was 11th in the second Class 4A poll of the season.
Next came 10th-ranked (6A) Bradley Central and a 41-2 outcome, followed last Friday by 10th-ranked (5A) Rhea County and a 49-10 Region 4-5A defeat in Evensville.
Hoping Stone Memorial would be an easier task after finishing 4-7 last year, the Panthers have instead been stunning with a trio of easy victories, outscoring East Ridge, Scott and DeKalb County by a combined 84-20 tally and moving into the state rankings at 15th last week and are 11th in the current listing.
"This isn't a region game for us, but it is an important game," proclaimed Coach Ryan. "We've been through a grinder so far and we're looking for some momentum. We need to get some positive energy going.
"We've come through some controversy last week, but the guys bonded together in the second half (for a 7-7 tie in the final two quarters) last week and we've had a great week of practice."
Even the junior varsity Mustangs gave some good signs of a turnaround with a hard-fought 16-12 battle against Rhea County on Monday.
"I'm doing what Bill Price did when he first came to Bradley and had such a young team. He played the same guys on Friday nights and then again on Mondays, to get them some extra experience," Ryan related.
"Our sophomore starters played the first half Monday and we were up 12-8 at the half. We've got about 20 JV guys that don't dress varsity and we used them in the second half and they only gave up one touchdown.
"We've got a lot of good, young players and a few older, experienced ones that are helping them out," the veteran pigskin mentor assessed.
The Panthers from Cumberland Mountain have made the TSSAA playoffs each of the last seven seasons and eight of their 11-year existence. Stone's best seasons saw them go 11-1 and 10-1 in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Despite going just 4-6 in the 2017 regular season, the Panthers were 2-2 and earned the No. 3 seed from Region 3-4A before falling to Maplewood in the opening round of the playoffs.
When Walker Valley made the trek to Crossville last year, record books were rewritten as the teams combined for 1,278 yards of offense in a 62-55 shootout.
However, the players that scored 16 of the astounding 17 touchdowns in the thrilling contest have graduated.
The lone returning scorer may be the most dangerous player on the field this Friday.
Senior quarterback Thomas Arnold, who threw for 235 yards and a pair of scores, plus punched one in himself from 11 yards out, has been on fire in the first three games of this season.
"Their offense runs through him," proclaimed Coach Ryan. "He is their main runner and has a strong arm to throw with."
While Stone has posted 1,070 yards of offense in its first three games, Arnold has amassed 532 himself, including 473 through the air with a hand in a dozen TDs so far.
In last week's 35-0 whipping of region foe DeKalb County, he accounted for 285 of the team's 335 offensive yards and all five scores, rushing for four and throwing for the other.
Against Scott the week before, Arnold finished with 270 all-purpose yards, four passing touchdowns, plus snatch an interception while playing cornerback. The team finished with 396 offensive yards and 21 first downs.
In his first year at Stone, head coach Derik Samber, who had etched his offenses in the TSSAA record books while coaching at Upperman, York Institute and Cookeville, switched the Panthers from the traditional Wing-T to a spread formation, and really opened up the field.
"They're not afraid to go deep and they often go for it on fourth downs," related Crossville Chronicle sportswriter Michael Lindsay.
"Defensively, they use a four-man front and love to blitz linebackers, bringing heavy pressure. SMHS has given up (only) 20 points and 270 yards in three weeks. Last Friday they gave up (minus)-9 total yards of offense and one first down."
"They (SM) are very physical and get after it," assessed Coach Ryan. "They have a very balanced offensive attack and defensively they get to the ball and tackle well.
"We are going to have to put some points on the board and keep our defense off the field better than we have been.
"Our defense isn't as bad as the scores indicate. We just haven't been able to sustain drives and put points on the board to give them a rest. We've been forcing two or three turnovers a game, but we've been giving up the big plays. We've given up very few long, sustained drives this year," he added.
"Our offensive line is improving and (Heath) Tanksley has been doing a great job running the ball. He's a quite type that comes out every day and gives it all he's got."
The sophomore running back is currently second in the area with 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Averaging 4.8 yards per carry, Tanksley is just two yards behind Bradley Central senior Ricky McCleary for the top spot in Bradley and Polk counties.
Trying to snap a half dozen game losing streak, Walker Valley is hoping to be able to put it all together this week in front of the home fans.
"A 'W' would do some great things for us, but we know we've got a tough team (Stone) coming in," declared Coach Ryan.