Rhea County prepares for region tilt at Walker Valley

Rhea's Dalton Hampton is pictured above during Friday night's win over Tuscola. Along with Jackson Langley and Ryan Young, Hampton is part of a dangerous and deep backfield for the Golden Eagles this season.

Mark Pemberton’s Golden Eagles have jumped out to a favorable 2-0 start to the 2019 campaign and will look to build upon that mark Friday evening when they make the trip across the river to visit Walker Valley.

Rhea (2-0) opened the year with a 42-6 triumph over the Carter High School Hornets guided by a pair of 100-yard performances from Jackson Langley and Dalton Hampton. In week two, the Golden Eagles withstood a scrappy bunch from Waynesville, N.C. before eventually pulling away for a 34-10 win over Tuscola High School’s Mountaineers. 

The Mustangs (1-1) are under the direction of a new head coach this year and ready to change the culture of the program after going 0-10 in 2018. First-year Mustangs head coach Drew Atkins picked up his first win in the season opener against Knoxville-Karns (42-40) on Aug. 23 snapping a 13-game losing streak. Bradley Central corralled the Mustangs on Friday, 59-14 in the Corral.

With Knoxville Catholic out of region 4-5A and into Division II-3A this season, Rhea’s region race only has four teams this year including Walker Valley, Lenoir City and Soddy-Daisy.

That means all four teams have automatic bids for the playoffs. But as Golden Eagle fans have learned, round one of the playoffs can prove to be very unkind to the No.3 and No. 4 seeds, who hit the road for the first round of the TSSSAA playoffs.

The Golden Eagles saw this first hand in 2018 as they finished behind Catholic and Soddy-Daisy forcing a road trip to 3-5A’s no. 2 seed, Oak Ridge, which resulted in a 42-0 loss.

These region foes have enjoyed their share of exciting games over the course of the past few seasons. In 2015, Rhea County fullback Mason Stephenson rushed for 195 yards and three touchdowns as the Golden Eagles sprinted past Walker Valley, 47-32. In 2016, Walker Valley quarterback Kolten Gibson riddled the Rhea County secondary with a 15-of-24 passing performance covering 266 yards and four touchdowns.  The junior rifleman misfired, however, on a crucial two-point conversion attempt that would have given the Mustangs a one-point cushion with 1:57 remaining in the game and Rhea held on for the pulsating 35-34 win.

While one could argue that perhaps there’s even more pressure this season when it comes to region play and the playoff implications, for Rhea County it is business as usual.

“I wouldn’t say it's any more pressure. We had a leadership class with the seniors back in the spring and talked about the playoff situation. But myself, Jacob Stringfellow and Bradley Goodwin all put a stop to the whole “we make the playoffs regardless” mentality because we don’t want to lose any game. Fact of the matter is there is no pressure because nothing has changed. Our goal is still to go out and dominate every time we step on the field,” senior running back Jackson Langley said.

“We know this is a big region game and we only get three of them so we’ll have to refocus despite the short week of practice and be ready to go Friday night at Walker Valley. It’s simply a must-win game for our goals and we’ve got to be ready,” senior linebacker Bradley Goodwin said.

Pemberton said he’s pleased with how the team has worked hard in the weight room and on the field to make sure Rhea County isn’t beat at the line of scrimmage as it was at times last season.

“Last year’s playoff game wasn’t a good experience but was a real eye-opener. I did a very poor job of preparing our kids but they’ve responded from the get-go this off season. We definitely want to get off to a good start in the region and hopefully we can position ourselves to win it and be able to host in the playoffs this season,” head coach Mark Pemberton said.

Game Information: Rhea County (2-0, 0-0) @ Walker Valley (1-1, 0-0)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. EST

Our Game Coverage: Follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@rheaheraldnews) or in-game score updates.

Players to Watch

Rhea County-RB Jackson Langley, RB Dalton Hampton, WR Taylor Cowley, LB Bradley Goodwin, OL/DL Caden Wicks, OL/DL Jacob Stringfellow, LB Drew Fisher, LB Avery Alday, LB Destin Shelfer, DB Gavin Roddy.

Walker Valley- QB Tucker Pope, RB/LB Kole Hall, ATH Skyy Craig, WR Brody Swafford, WR Noah Duprey, LB Garrett Noble, DE Bryce Hixson, LB Kellar Carson, DT/NG Christian Vandusen.

Bottom Line: Walker Valley proved in week one it has weapons and is fully capable of putting points on the scoreboard. However, it appears the Mustangs still have work to do defensively giving up 49.5 points per contest through the first two weeks. Expect to see some offense from both sides Friday night as Walker Valley will likely look to attack the Eagle secondary while Rhea County will seek big plays on the ground. In the end, the locals should pull away and wear down this Mustang defense en route to 3-0 and the first region victory of the season.