The challenges continue as a young, battle-weary Walker Valley team hosts the giant of the county, seventh 5A ranked Cleveland, in District 5-AAA and cross-county rivalry action Friday night.
Gates will open at “The Corral” by 5:15 on Friday, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30.
“We’ve got Cleveland this week and they’re playing very well. They’re a very good football team and are very explosive and have a lot of weapons. It’s going to be sort of like David vs. Goliath, with them being Goliath,” commented Mustangs head coach Glen Ryan.
“We’re little and they’re a big, physical football team. It’s nothing that we haven’t seen already. We’re used to playing teams a whole lot bigger and faster than we are,” Ryan admitted. “Through this grind we’ve learned that we have to toughen up in some areas and go out there and play football.”
Walker Valley, a team that is lacking in depth, is still beleaguered by the pesky injury bug, which was coach Ryan’s biggest concern going into the season.
“We still have some guys with bumps, bruises and concussions so we’re having to reshuffle around with a team that didn’t have a lot of depth to begin with. That was one of the things that concerned me going into this year. I felt like we could be OK if we could stay injury free. We were playing pretty good up until the injuries started, then it all started going down hill,” Ryan proclaimed. “We can’t worry about the game, we just have to get better and take care of ourselves — that’s all we can do. It’s not about who we’ve got on the schedule, its just about working on us and getting better.”
Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford knows that despite a rough few weeks, the Mustangs (3-4, 03) will come out and make a strong showing in the Raiders’ (5-3, 3-1) second hometown rivalry game in a row.
“They are 3-4 but they’ve struggled the last few weeks, and they were off a week. I think just like coach Ryan will tell you, it’s attributed to youth,” Crawford explained. “He likes his young kids and we can see on film that they are playing hard and have good schemes. They’ll play a little harder and smarter this week due to the rivalry. They had a great win against Rhea County and we know they took East Hamilton to the wire. We understand that they’re really capable and that the young players who are playing are good players.”
Last week the Raiders were on the winning side of a one point, 21-20 game, a stark contrast to their 21-20 loss to East Hamilton two weeks ago.
“I think we’ve made mistakes and lost close games and we’ve made mistakes and won close games. Sure we made some mistakes, but we were still able to win a close game with Bradley and that hasn’t happened much around here in the last couple years,” Crawford stated. “We turned the ball over again and that kept us from making it an easy victory. We had some resilience about us and continued to play with great effort and energy — it was an entertaining game.”
The climax of the game came when Jonathan Terrero was able to block the Bears’ extra point attempt.
“I think it was a product of his efforts. He told me that he had seen their guard block down and their tackle was late coming. He said he saw a gap in there and knew their snap count. It was a great play for him and one I’m sure he’ll always remember,” Crawford said.
One problem that has plagued Cleveland throughout this season has been the number of turnovers it has allowed.
“We’ve asked them very, very nicely to quit turning the ball over,” Crawford quipped. “We’re at 19 now, with 17 takeaways — it’s been constant for us,” he added. “It has cost us opportunities to win a couple games and it’s made other games close. You don’t want to handcuff the players too much, but we’ve got to be smarter with the football in all cases. Our goal this week will be to have zero turnovers.”
If the Raiders do make any mistakes, coach Ryan hopes that his team will actually be able to make the most of the situation, something that they have struggled with.
“Our problem is that you have to capitalize on those mistakes. Last week we had a chance after recovering on the opening kickoff when Ooltewah fumbled. We’re down deep in their territory and we don’t capitalize and miss a field goal. Then we return a punt down deep to their territory and still come away with no points,” Crawford explained. “We had the ball three times down there and came away with one score. You can’t win games, especially games against better opponents, when you do those kind of things.”
The Walker Valley is the second wing T team that Cleveland has come up against this season.
“It’s a wing T team, and totally different than what we normally see. This is our second one this year after Wilson Central. They are the first 3-3 that we’ve seen, but we’ve seen three-down-linemen defenses. This will be our seventh three-hands down defense in nine games, so that’s one thing we will at least be familiar with,” Crawford said. “What we need to do is not give them their base plays in wing T. We have to try to get them into a spread offense. For us, the system will be the biggest challenge. Can we play those wing T plays enough to force them out and into another formation?”
Coach Ryan acknowledges his team uses an uncommon offense, but feels it hasn’t benefited the Mustangs thus far.
“If we had been playing better offensively, I would say being a wing T would help us some, because it is different. Right now, until we get to playing like we need to be playing, it’s not difficult on anybody. We’re beating ourselves on offense with mistakes and that’s what we have to get better at,” Ryan stated.
Junior QB Cory Cook has seen his fair share of struggles this season.
Most recently Cook completed only two of his 14 pass attempts for a total of 30 yards at Ooltewah. To date, Cook has completed 32-of-88 attempted passes for a total of 518 yards.
Coach Ryan feels that Cook will improve as he further learns his role.
“People say we don’t throw the football. Well, we try to throw it — that’s an ongoing process,” Ryan said. “We have very basic plays that we run so Cory can work on his reads. We’ve got to get our line to get Cory some time so that he’s not rushing things.”
Coach Ryan knows Cleveland is a very balanced team that is a threat on both sides of the ball.
“I think Cleveland is very good at passing and running the ball. They have become a very balanced football team and that’s why they’re playing well right now,” Ryan commented. “They can run the football, then they can also sit back and pick you apart throwing the ball too. (QB Austin Herink) has a great core of receivers and is an outstanding quarterback. Having that threat of running it just makes them double the danger.”
Herink has completed 142-of-228 pass attempts for a total of 1,899 yards.
Junior TJ Parker leads the Raiders in rushing with a total of 711 yards in 105 rushing attempts, with junior Raekwon Bunion coming in next with a total of 438 yards in 75 attempts.
Seniors DJ Jones and Tyler Davis the Raiders as well as the county in receiving. In a 41 receptions Jones has racked up a total of 621 yards, while Davis has gotten 560 yards in 27 receptions.
According to coach Crawford, his team will have to keep their eyes on a number of Walker Valley players.
“I think that their wide receiver Cooper Melton has made some plays against some good teams. He’s the one guy that helped keep them in the East Hamilton game,” Crawford stated. “The next guy we would probably be concerned about is Alex King, even though they play different guys at different spots. Chandler Hunt has been solid. They are going to run their fullback quite a bit.”
Senior Tanner Dillard leads the Mustangs in rushing with a total of 222 yards in 43 rushing attempts, with junior Holt Spencer following with 202 yards in 55 receptions.
Senior Colton Morrow has a total of 200 yards in six receptions, with freshmen Cooper Melton having 126 yards in seven receptions.
With the Raiders on the upswing, Crawford still stresses that consistency is key for success.
“I know I sound like a broken record but the one thing that we are continually striving for here is consistency,” Crawford commented. “We need to worry about us and need to control what we can control. We have to take care of the football. Now that we’ve gotten our running game working really well, we need to go back and continue cleaning up our passing game.”
There is a lot riding on Friday’s game, as Cleveland hopes to solidify a spot in the district playoffs.
“This game can get us into the playoffs. Six wins gets you in. This is bigger than it was last week. This game gives us the chance to go for the district championship,” Crawford declared.
On the flip side, the Mustangs will be doing everything in their power to come up with their first District 5-AAA win of the season.
“You’ve got to try to do things to disguise what you’re doing as much as you can, play solid, try to take away one aspect of it to make them one-dimensional, and then clamp down on that. It’s a lot easier said than done,” Ryan explained. “It comes down to who goes out and plays 48 minutes of football, makes the fewest mistakes, and blocks and tackles.”