Mustangs wide receiver Daniel Denton runs in the first half against Loudon. The Mustangs travel to Soddy-Daisy Friday, with home field playoff implications on the line. (Banner Photo: Nikki Swafford)
Without question Friday's matchup with Region 4-5A leader Soddy-Daisy is the biggest game of the season for Walker Valley.
With only four teams in the region, it's been a foregone conclusion the Mustangs woiuld have at least one more game remaining in 2019, but it's also not enough they are in the post season.
The Mustangs (4-5, 1-1 in region football), want to host a first-round playoff game and in order to stay home next week and not have to travel to fourth-ranked Knox West (8-1) to open the postseason, a road win over the Trojans (5-4, 2-0 Region 4-5A) is a must.
Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. Friday, at Soddy-Daisy.
“There is zero doubt (this is the biggest game of the season). This is something we've been looking for all year, something we've wanted to do all year, something we've kind of put as a goal of ours the entire year,” Mustang coach Drew Akins said of the importance of a win Friday. “It's something we believe shows where we are as a program and shows we're moving forward. We're excited about this week."
After winning three straight games in the middle of the season, the Mustangs have fallen the last couple of weeks and have suffered somewhat of a mental setback. The Mustangs coaching staff has been working relentlessly to help the Mustangs continue to build pride through adversity.
“We've talked a lot about pride this week and what pride means. No matter what, continue having pride in yourself, your brothers, your team, the program and the school,” said Akins. “It kind of trickles down into bigger things. We want to give our school a home playoff game and we're going to do the best we can do to give that to them.”
Akins explained the pride is still there and the Mustangs are ready to break out of “The Corral” and gallop home with a win over the Trojans.
“They have showed up. This team always shows up ready to go. They have a knack for bringing energy and bringing effort,” he said.
Walker Valley started last week's loss to Loudon in a positive manner with a 7-0 lead, but according to Akins the Mustangs, “lost ourselves and let it snowball.”
The Mustangs have shown a propensity for losing momentum after an unfavorable situation arises.
“We're still trying to learn how to handle when things go bad and still trying to find a way to stop the bleeding. When things go bad, that's OK — just find a way to stop the bleeding, whether it's getting a stop or a score or producing a long drive,” said the coach. “We've still got to learn how to deal with things. We're still in the process of learning.”
The Mustangs (4-5) must be on top of their game not only mentally, but physically as well. The home of the Trojans (5-4) is traditionally a tough place to play, and to get back to 5-5 Walker Valley will need to play at the top of its skill level.
“Playing there is always hard. (Soddy coach) Justin (Barnes) is always going to put his kids in great situations. They've got a couple of dynamic kids that make them really tough. Running back Hayden Maynor is really good and Barnes' nephew, quarterback Isaac Barnes, can really play. They also have a receiver, KeSean Eubanks, who is a really good ball player,” Akins said of the Trojans.
“They may not have the numbers, but they are still tough. Anytime you can hold Rhea County to seven points it says something about your mentality on defense.”
Familiar with the arsenal the Trojans have at their disposal and the fact a home playoff game is on the line is a point the Mustangs' staff has been hammering home. The losses and win to non-region opponents were simply scrimmages in preparation for Friday's showdown with the Trojans.
“We've preached since Rhea County everything they want is right here in front of them,” said the coach. "This one matters and it's right here in front of us. It's been our goal from the start, to get the seniors, our fans and our school a home playoff game and for that to become the expectation here.”
Akins acknowledged in order for home playoff games to become the expectation, it first must become a reality. The Mustangs have an opportunity to make history with the first-ever playoff game inside “The Corral.”
“There is no point shying away from it. It's the reality: If you win you host, if you don't you don't. We might as well attack it full force,” Akins said of using hosting a playoff game at home as a motivational tool.
The game plan for the Mustangs won't change tremendously according to Akins. There will still be situations where a disguise or two will be in order, but overall the plan will be to take what is given and take advantage of it.
“We're always going to try to find holes in the defense. They do a great job of putting a lot of guys in the box to make you throw the ball, then when you throw the ball in space they do a good job tackling,” he noted. “We've got to do a really good job of scheming so we can get the ball in space and gain positive yards.”
The Mustangs will take with them some things Akins is hoping will put his receivers in good spots in matchups with the Trojans' defense and will work to exploit what is handed to his offense. He wants to see his receivers in spots to catch wide-open catches, but more importantly wants to see yards gained after the catch is made in traffic.
“It's important when they get the ball in their hands they make a play,” Akins stated. “They are going to have opportunities in space, but we have to do something against Soddy that Soddy does well, and that is tackle well in space. We've got to to a good job of breaking those and making good plays great plays.”
The Mustangs' head wrangler said it will be imperative to sustain long drives over the course of four quarters, something he admitted they haven't done the last two weeks, particularly inside the Red Zone. Then, when the Mustangs get to the Red Zone they cannot walk away empty handed as they did against Loudon and East Hamilton.
“You can't leave points on the field,” said Akins. "We've got to do a good job of sustaining 12-, 13-, 14-play drives and once we get inside the Red Zone we've got to do a good job of finishing those drives.
On defense, the Mustangs must contain Maynor, Eubanks and Barnes.
“If we can find a way to get those guys on the ground and make them sustain drives then we are going to have a good night defensively. If they make big play after big play then it's going to be really tough for us to win the ballgame,” said Akins.
“We've got to sustain drives, don't give up big plays and make a big play when the time comes.”
No matter the outcome Friday, Akins said he is pleased at how far his Mustangs have come in the relatively short time they have been together. He is excited about where the initiative is headed and is looking forward to continuing to see the plan take shape.
“I'm excited for this season and how far we've come. Our future is a bright place. We're in a bright spot in the history of our program; I see good things happening,” he said. “I understand, though, it's not over yet and we still have some business to take care of.”
Walker Valley's Dylan Jenkins (21) and Tucker Ownby bring down a Lenoir City runner. The Mustangs travel to Soddy-Daisy Friday, for the final regular season game of the season. (Banner Photo: Richard Roberts)