By Reid Bankston
INDEPENDENCE – After a 31-0 thrashing at the hands of Holly Springs in their home opener, questions began to be asked about the Water Valley Blue Devils heading into their second road encounter of the year against Independence.
However those doubts and concern, about both improvement and character, were but to rest by Brad Embry’s bunch, as the Blue Devils edged out the Wildcats 26-22, earning Water Valley their second road win of the season.
With Independence thumping Water Valley 53-12 in last season’s matchup, the Blue Devils were desperate to keep the game within reach throughout the night. However, Independence got off to a quick start behind the junior duo of quarterback Londen Parker and running back Rainey Tuggles, as the Wildcats took a 7-0 lead with a 26-yard touchdown run from Parker.
The Water Valley offense got off to a sluggish start as their first two drives resulted in Josh Johnson punts. Johnson’s second punt presented Water Valley with their first big break of the night, as sophomore Eric Buckley recovered the Independence fumbled punt. The Blue Devils, behind the running of junior D.C. Logan, capitalized in just four plays, scoring on a Logan one- yard touchdown run. However, senior J.J. Woodard missed his first of three extra points of the night, as the Blue Devils still trailed 7-6 with 30 seconds left in the first quarter.
After the Blue Devils defense forced an Independence punt, the Water Valley offense struck again, as a 79-yard run by Logan set up a four-yard touchdown run by junior quarterback Leo Daniels.
“He (Logan) had a good night, they packed the box on us late, but we still tried to run the ball,” said Embry. “I thought we’d hit some big ones, which we did throughout the game. D.C. is good at that, he runs hard and plays hard.”
However, Woodard’s kicking woes again emerged as the extra point was missed, putting Water Valley ahead 12-7 with 8:40 remaining in the second quarter.
After both Independence and Water Valley stalled on offense, the Blue Devil special teams came up big yet again. With only a minute to go before half time, Logan blocked an Independence punt, setting the Blue Devils offense up at the Independence 13-yard line. Logan capitalized on his own special team’s big play with a 6-yard touchdown run with 29 seconds to go before halftime. After missing their first two extra points of the night, Embry elected to go for the two point conversion. Again, it was Daniels who made the play with his feet, out running the Independence defense into the end zone, putting Water Valley up 20-7 at the half.
While Water Valley stumbled on their opening drive of the second half, Independence looked set to pull closer to the Blue Devils. However, Richard Russo’s defense came up with their first of numerous big stops on the night, forcing Parker into an incomplete pass on fourth and eight inside the Blue Devil 20-yard line with 6:36 remaining in the third.
As the third quarter progressed, the Independence defense stifled the Water Valley offense, forcing a three and out on the Blue Devils next possession. Taking over at the Water Valley 39-yard line, it took Independence only three plays to edge closer. Behind 36 yards on two carries from Parker, senior running back Antonio Burton scored from three yards out with 3:54 remaining in the third, pulling the Wildcats within a one possession at 20-13.
With the Independence momentum surging, the Water Valley came up with what would prove to be the defining play in this encounter. On the ensuing kickoff, senior wide receiver Corey Carr broke free, taking the kick 75 yards for a touchdown, putting Water Valley ahead 26-13.
“Everything just looked good, I saw my boys set the hole for me and I took advantage of it,” said Carr. “I just work hard at practice and let it stand out on the field.”
In what became the theme of the second half, Independence regained momentum on their next possession, driving 80 yards, 68 of which came on a Tuggles touchdown, to cut the Water Valley lead to 26-20.
A Morris Malone sack of Daniels in the end zone granted Independence another dose of momentum, as the Blue Devils watched their lead shrink to 26-22 with 9:05 remaining in the fourth quarter.
A fumbled exchange between Buckley and Daniels on the Water Valley 26-yard line with 6:49 remaining put Blue Devil nerves on edge, but Russo’s defense again responded. Freshman cornerback Chris Conard, who started his first game of the season, broke up a pass on fourth down, forcing an Independence turnover on downs.
“We’ve got a couple of kids that started for the first time at corner,” said Embry. “They’re young kids, ninth and 10th graders, but they’re good athletes and they want to do good, and they played their tail off.”
Water Valley stumbled on their final offensive possession of the game, as Johnson was again forced to punt, giving Independence one last chance at a win.
The Blue Devil defense, led by outstanding performances by sophomore linebacker J.D. Fondon and senior defensive lineman J.J. Woodard, forced another incomplete pass by Parker with only 39 seconds to go, securing Water Valley a hard fought 26-22 victory.
“I’m proud of our kids, it’s a little redemption. We’re learning how to win,” said Embry. “What we did that I’m most proud of is when something didn’t go right, we just got back up and hit them in the mouth. It’s a grind. Every play can be the play that wins a ball game and you have to play every one of them.”
Work Ethic, Character Emerges
Everything was set up for Water Valley to stumble against Independence once again. After all, the Holly Springs Hawks did Water Valley’s mental state no favors by delivering a 31 point beating on the Blue Devils in their home opener, and this Independence team toppled Water Valley 53-12 last season. However, the character and hunger of a Water Valley team eager to improve was apparent from the opening whistle against the Wildcats, and soon after their loss to Holly Springs.
“We have great kids, not good, but great kids and they work hard,” said Embry. “Every day we lift weights and get out there and practice for two and a half hours, and they don’t complain, they want to get better. They understand that what we are doing is what it takes to win, and that’s why we played better this week. What can I say, it’s the kids, they want to get this thing rolling and I’m proud of them.”
It is that character and work ethic that willed the Blue Devils to their second win of the season, matching their total of the entire 2007 season, and could prove crucial in upcoming games against Senatobia, Bruce, and Eupora. Defensively, Water Valley looks to have made a complete 180-degree change from the unit that gave up 38.5 points per game in 2007.
“Coach Russo does a good job coming up with defensive game plans and I leave that to him,” said Embry. “What we’re going to do as a program is play defense first. If D.C. needs a rest, he’s going to rest on offense, we’re a defense first football team.”