Friday night’s matchup between the Polk County Wildcats and Walker Valley Mustangs could be very interesting on more than one level.
On the one hand, Polk is coming off a very ho-hum and uninspired victory over archrival McMinn Central.
“I have felt better after some losses than I did Friday after that win. Normally I don’t come out and say it, but for some reason we can’t go out and play hard, play smart, play tough and be excited about what we’re doing,” said Polk County coach Derrick Davis. “I put it to the seniors that they can get on board or we can get guys ready that we will have back the next year and the year after that. Senior leadership right now is not what it needs to be.”
On the other hand, Walker Valley must put last week’s loss to county rival Bradley Central quickly behind it to regain the momentum the Mustangs had built before the loss.
“(Getting over last week is) going to be key for us. We’ve got to put that game behind us and move forward and continue to try and work on things to get better. Up until last week, I felt like we had been progressing. We kind of went backwards. We kind of stumbled a bit last week against a good football team. They were ready to play and we weren’t,” related Walker Valley coach Glen Ryan.
“The key for us is to learn from it, put it behind us and move forward. Our kids know they didn’t have their best game, and as coaches we probably didn’t have our best game. We’ve got to do a better job all the way around.”
Davis said before the season started the Wildcats will go as far as the seniors will take the team. He saw positive results after Week 1, but has since seen the team slip into an uncharacteristic, uninspired funk over the course of the next three weeks that was exposed by McMinn Central.
“It seems there has been a steady decline in effort over the last three games. Once again, not taking anything away from McMinn Central, because they finally realized the second half they could out-physical us,” said Davis, who is still grasping for answers about motivating his team that had better come quick. “I pointed out this week there was a time when teams would not line up in a double tight end set and try to out-physical us. Now we are seeing it.”
“I’m at a loss on what to do. We have tried everything we know to do. It boils down to we have got to have that ‘want to.’ We’re looking at making changes and we will be doing that the next six games if need be.”
The Mustangs, who have never beaten the Wildcats, are hoping to use last week’s learning session as a lesson on how to perform with confidence when it comes to playing on the bigger local rivalry stage.
“We’re still growing and learning. We haven’t done well on big stages,” said Ryan. “Last year against Cleveland and this year against Bradley, those were both bigtime atmosphere and big, important, crucial games. We kind of laid an egg both years.”
It doesn’t matter to Davis and his staff that Polk has not lost to Walker Valley since the two teams started the series. Davis understands and has continually emphasized to the Wildcats that the Mustangs squad headed to the Larry G. Davis Football Complex Friday is not the same Herd that has gone down in defeat in years past.
“I don’t know if they (the Wildcats) understand who we are even playing at times. I know that this is a dang good team we are playing. They beat a team that beat us and they were right with East Hamilton in the fourth quarter. I know this is the best Walker Valley team we will face since we started playing them,” said Davis.
“This game doesn’t come at a good time. I’m worried about us right now instead of our remaining teams. We have got to focus on ourselves and fix that before we can think about other teams. Walker Valley has never beaten us, but we are ripe for the picking if we can’t turn this around. We were fortunate to win last Friday, and we won’t win another game if we can’t find some fire and enthusiasm and play hard.”
Walker Valley has seen a version of what it will face in Benton when the Mustangs went against Sequoyah. Polk will offer a similar steady diet of “in your face” football with a side of quickness to try and catch the Mustangs’ secondary sleeping.
“I think Sequoyah at times resembles Polk when they want to line up and come right at you with a big line and those big backs. But I don’t know if there is anybody that really compares to Polk. They do what they do and they do it very well and they’ve done it for a long time. They say, “Here we come, you’ve got to stop us.” We have struggled with that,” Ryan admitted.
“The other thing they do well and their staff does a really good job with is, they play great defense. They will put eight in the box to stop the run, but their secondary does well and does a great job of covering on the pass. They are very, very sound defensively. They are very aggressive and they tackle well.”
Ryan said the bottom line for the Mustangs is shaking off the loss to the Bears and turning total focus to the Polk County Wildcats. If that happens and the Mustangs execute and stick to the game plan, the results could be positive. If not, it may be a long night leading to a long rest of the season.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us to put last Friday behind and get focused on this Friday. Then to have to go up against a team like Polk County makes it even doubly tough.
“It’s going to come down to what it comes down to every Friday. Are we going to be able to stop the big, power running game, and are we going to be able to move the football and put points on the board and establish drives? If we can do those things then I like our chances. I like our chances a lot. If we don’t, it’s going to be a long night for us,” said Ryan.
Davis simply said the Wildcats are going to face their biggest gut check of the season and had best be ready to face a new and improved version of the Walker Valley Mustangs. If not, then it could set the stage for a dismal second half of the season.
“I’m calling it the way I see it. The knowledgeable fans have seen it too. I’m concerned at this point in the year going into Week 5. Unfortunately, we’ve got a good, hungry Walker Valley team coming to town. We are going to see what we’re made of Friday, that’s for sure.”