After last week's loss to Smith County, Walker Valley head coach Drew Akins still felt the Mustangs played well on both sides of the ball and was encouraged by the offensive push and for a score and defensive stop just before halftime.
The Mustangs came back from the break and took the lead, but in the end could not contain the Owls' running game that eventually led to the third loss of the season for the Mustangs.
“The biggest positive from last week is the resiliency we showed coming back.
Smith County is a tough team. We made a decision to stop the running back Buck Sweep and it cost us on the quarterback runs,” said Akins. “I thought our kids played hard. Jackson Gibson really showed up defensively.”
Akins said junior quarterback Evan Schwarzl, although still making first-year starter mistakes, is beginning to come into his own as a field general. Schwarzl found Tucker Ownby for three touchdowns against Smith County and hooked up with Blaine Lowe late in the fourth quarter.
“If we can cut out the mistakes I really like the trajectory Evan is on to continue to improve throughout the season,” Akins stated.
Schwarzl and company will face another big test Friday night as the Cleveland Blue Raiders invade “The MAC” looking to hand the Mustangs their third consecutive loss. The non-region matchup will have no implications on Walker Valley's postseason, but a win would definitely boost the confidence of the Herd headed into the final weeks of the season.
“I think this week is going to be a big week. If we get a win it could be a big morale boost, a kind shot in the arm to get going. We're putting a lot of energy into that,” said the coach. “It goes back to how we practice. Last week we practiced really well and the product on the field was really good. We've got to continue to practice well if we want the product to be a good product.”
Mistakes on both sides of the ball will need to be eliminated of the Mustangs are going to have success against a 2-3 Blue Raiders team that may have struggled at times during the season thus far, but has the firepower to strike quickly.
“DJ Adams can go. He is so fast. Mycah Jordan, when he gets the ball in his hands is really quick. Those two can give you problems. Obviously, Rodney Broadnax is a big, tall receiver and their sophomore running back, Isaiah Davis, is a good player,” Akins acknowledged. “Then you've got (quarterback) Drew Lambert, a three-year starter, leading the charge. He understands what they are trying to do and is not going to let the pressure get to him. He is always calm and cool and doesn't get rattled.
“Defensively they are really good. They've got guys who fly to the ball,” Akins continued. “Camden Lockerby is a really solid linebacker on the inside and so is Lamar Anders. Their defensive line is really tough to move.”
Akins admitted a running game against the Cleveland D-line is going to be a tough challenge particularly with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm who will have to step up in a big way.
“As we get into the final stretch (of the season) running the ball is going to be at a premium. We've got to be efficient running the ball. Evan's got to make some plays through the air and Tucker and Blaine have got to continue to make plays,” Akins stated. “We've got to make sure we are disciplined offensively and when there is a big play to be had we've got to go make that play, whether it's in the run game or through the air.”
Although the Mustangs currently sit at 2-3 on the season, Akins feels the team has played well and if not for a missed tackle or a missed assignment here and there, the record would reflect a different number.
“I'm not disappointed in where we're at, honestly. I'm just disappointed that our record doesn't reflect how good we really are as a team and how good we've played throughout the year. Really, we have laid just one egg, and that was an offensive egg,” Akins recalled. “Defensively, we held them (Carter County) to just 14 points. It was 7-3 at the start of the fourth quarter. We've lost three games by a total of 17 points. We've got to find a way as a coaching staff to flip those one score games.”
The coach also knows a win Friday night will definitely not be a given and the Mustangs will need to give their all for the team on every snap against a dangerous Blue Raiders team
“I expect this to be another game like that where we compete, we fight and it comes down to one or two plays at the end. This year in our three losses it came down to one or two plays. We've got to, as a coaching staff, do a better job of preparing our kids to go make those plays in the big moments,” said Akins. “Our kids have the ability to do it. Our kids have the ability to make any play we ask them to make. We've just got to prepare them mentally to make those plays. We'e got to control the sideline to make those plays and we've got to control our emotions to make those plays.”
Emotions must also be held in check and focus on the task at hand will be paramount for the Mustangs if they are to reverse the current course and head into the final four games of the season with solid momentum.
“This is going to be an emotional game. Our kids want to win this one. We understand the importance of this game. We understand the importance for our kids, our coaching staff, our community and our school. It's important to a lot of people.,” Akins acknowledged.” It doesn't mean anything as far as the playoffs, but that doesn't make it less important. We've got to understand this could really catapult us into the second half.”
Emotions will also be in play in a different sense as Akins and the Mustangs will join the Blue Raiders in bringing awareness to pediatric cancer, a devastating illness that has touched the lives of many families in the Bradley County area.
Akins was 19 when 11-year old family friend Lana Beth Webster was taken by Neuroblastoma. To honor those battling pediatric cancer and bring awareness to the disease, the Mustangs and Blue Raiders will wear gold ribbons on their helmets. Cheerleaders and band members from both schools will also wear gold ribbons.
“Friday we are bringing awareness to pediatric cancer. We've had a lot of that strike our community with Olivia Weatherford (CHS), Grayson Moser (CHS) and Mason Cobble (WV) and others. Our community has been impacted pretty heavily by pediatric cancer. It's something that's really close to my heart,” said Akins. “This is Pediatric Cancer Month and we're going to bring awareness to that. We have kids in our community who are struggling and families that are struggling dealing with pediatric cancer. We want to shine a light and and make people aware of what they can do to support kids going thought it.”