CHARLESTON, Tenn. — Now in their 12th year of playing high school football, Walker Valley has played 118 football games. Chances are, they've never entered a game with as much excitement and hype surrounding it as No. 119.
An unblemished start, with season-opening victories over District 6-AA members East Ridge, Hixson and Red Bank, marks the first time the program has started 3-0. They'll travel to Benny Monroe Stadium on Friday to face their rival Cleveland. The game will also be the first in the district for Walker Valley, while the Raiders are 1-0 so far in District 5-AAA.
The historical start has given the Mustangs reason to be excited. Their opponent -- who enters the game 2-2 -- lends reason for the hype.
It's a place that senior offensive lineman Alexander Hooper wasn't sure the program would ever get to. They entered the year on a 16-game losing streak and had won only three of their prior 30 games after a playoff berth in 2008.
"I expected to be 3-0 to start the year, but the best part is how the fan base and student section have rallied behind us," Hooper said. "The whole atmosphere has changed. Everybody is looking forward to our games. We've bonded as a school and it's been special."
With excitement and hype comes pressure. Coach Glen Ryan has been pleased with his practices this week, but a sloppy offensive practice on Wednesday had him drilling players extra after practice had long ended.
"You hope they don't get caught up in the hype," Ryan said. "You hope they're focused and we as coaches try to downplay it, but they live here in Cleveland and they know there's a lot of hype surrounding this week.
"What we try to stress to the kids is that we're a blue-collar team. There can't be a day that we don't get better, because if there is a day we don't, it's a day we fall down. We focus on one day and one game at a time, but they're kids and they can't help but get overexcited."
The school has rallied around the program. Known for the most part as a "band school," a packed-out house yelled and cheered in a way that hadn't been seen in a long time -- possibly since the school's opening in 2001. Hooper said that all week long, the announcements have included a note encouraging students to go to the game.
"We've had a solid week of practice," he said. "There hasn't been anybody that's been too overexcited, but this is something we're not used to. It's new to the players, but if we just focus, we should be able to get it done."