Walker Valley's Brody Swafford (23) is tackled on a kick return against Soddy-Daisy at Walker Valley High School on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018 in Cleveland, Tenn. (Times Free Press Photo: C.B. Schmelter)
Walker Valley has new life to its program with a talented transfer quarterback in Tucker Pope, the return to full health of running back Heath Tanksley and new leadership at the top.
New coach Drew Akins has demanded discipline from the Mustangs, who have a real chance to post four to six wins with their nonregion schedule alone. Six of those opponents combined for a 23% win rate last season.
Spending the offseason as Region 4-5A football champions was a blast for the Soddy-Daisy Trojans.
"It had been 22 years since this school won its last region title," coach Justin Barnes said. "It really is special when you can win the region and lock in playoff games at home. The championship gave us more validation. Now our guys have a feel of what it takes to get the job done. We have confidence and know what we want to do and have to do."
The party is over for now, but the reigning champions appear fully loaded on the offensive side to put up points and help add another piece of hardware to the program's trophy case.
Senior running back and linebacker Hayden Maynor led the way last season, totaling 985 yards with nine touchdowns, but with nine starters back on offense the attack looks to spread the ball around and keep defenses guessing.
With big-game experience, players understand the playbook and their coach believes they have even greater potential this year.
"The guys understand what to do," Barnes said. "They are coming off the field saying, 'I've got this; we can run this; I can beat this guy.' They have the knowledge of the system, and that makes it easier for us. Our coaching staff feels comfortable to call something, knowing they can go out and execute."
With Knoxville Catholic having left the region, playoff spots are guaranteed for Soddy-Daisy, Rhea County, Walker Valley and Lenoir City.
The Trojans held their own with the now Division II-AAA Fighting Irish. Soddy-Daisy beat them 17-7 on the road last season after losing 49-48 at home in 2017 to Catholic, which won the Class 5A state championship that year.
"Nobody really gave us a chance to play with them the past two years, but our guys really responded to the challenge," Barnes said. "Both games we played them gave our guys a boost of confidence. It helped us grow and eventually helped us win a region championship."
Soddy-Daisy will be a force in the air, too, with a talented receiving corps comprised of Garrett Dent, KeSean Eubanks, Landon Maynor, Landen Reece and Jalan Render for quarterback Isaac Barnes to throw to.
One concern for the Trojans is staying healthy, as close to half if not more at times will play both sides of the ball.
Soddy-Daisy will host Class 3A powerhouse Red Bank to begin the season and later will accept visits from 6A stalwarts Ooltewah and Bradley Central.
Also in the hunt for the Region 4-5A title from the area will be Rhea County and Walker Valley, which between them have had only 10 wins over the past two seasons.
Rhea's Eagles have an entire starting offensive line built of seniors who will try to produce a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. Bradley Goodwin is also one of the most talented defensive players in the area and is coming off a 125-tackle season.
"Our kids showed up and worked hard this offseason," Rhea coach Mark Pemberton said. "We are not used to losing here. Our kids responded and had the best offseason we've had in the weightroom since I've been here. Strength builds confidence, and a lot of it can go a long way."
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REGION 4-5A OUTLOOK
Team to beat: Soddy-Daisy stands a good chance of repeating its region title with nine returning starters on offense. The Trojans are hungry to build off their success.
Watch out for: Rhea County has had a bad taste from the past two seasons and will try to return to old form in the wing-T offense. The Eagles have taken ownership and worked hard in the weightroom.
Best game: Soddy-Daisy won a defensive slugfest against Rhea County at home last year. In Week 8 the two will be out for blood again with the winner perhaps riding on to the region championship.
Dream schedule: Outside of strong county rival Bradley Central, Walker Valley’s six other nonregion opponents had a combined record of 14-48 last season. The Mustangs look to build tremendous confidence and could have a winning season after just winning one game over the past two seasons.
Nightmare schedule: The Weeks 6-8 schedule is particularly daunting for Rhea County, which travels to Ooltewah and Red Bank before hosting Soddy-Daisy.
Players to watch: Soddy-Daisy and Rhea County both have workhorses who can change the game at running back and linebacker in seniors Hayden Maynor and Bradley Goodwin. Both teams also have loads of talent up front. Trojans junior quarterback Isaac Barnes has experienced playmakers to disperse the ball to, and KeSean Eubanks leads a deep and very talented receiving corps. Jackson Langley is a potential 1,000-yard back for the Eagles, while senior Kyle Carr (6-4, 200) will get chances to connect with deep threat Taylor Cowley. Walker Valley will look to Griffin Broome to play in a similar role to how Calvin Jackson did at Red Bank in Drew Akins’ offense, while Skyy Craig is a tough-nosed defensive back who will get chances to blast off on offense, too. The Mustangs are excited about Tucker Pope at quarterback and the return of Heath Tanksley at running back. Senior Jonah Rittenhouse is a talented pass rusher for Lenoir City, which won at Soddy-Daisy last year.