By Reid Bankston, Sports Reporter
A 2008 season dedicated to restoring the pride around a depleted Water Valley football program came to a prideful end at Leland Friday night, as the Blue Devils fell 33-14 to the Cubs.
A competitive and hard fought first half had the Blue Devils in a position to pull an upset over region four’s top seed, but the Cubs eventually proved to be too much for Water Valley.
“They (Leland) did a good job all night on defense, they’re fast. They locked us up man and put a bunch of folks in the box and we were hit and miss. We made few plays here and there. We had a chance at halftime being tied up 7-7, but they came out mad and made some plays. Our kids fought hard and I’m proud of them, they did everything we asked of them,” said Water Valley head coach Brad Embry. “I told them it wasn’t a lack of want to, we just have to take this and remember it when we’re lifting weights in January, February, and March,” Embry said.
The Cubs took the lead with 3:13 left in the first quarter, as Donterrius Thomas jumped Water Valley quarterback Josh Johnson’s screen pass to D.C. Logan, returning the interception to put Leland up 7-0.
“It was just a little screen play and it was just a missed assignment. You’re supposed to block that guy, and that comes back to having a lot of kids that haven’t played football before,” said Embry. “We’ve done that a lot this year and some of these guys are young men, but they’re 7th grade football players. They make big plays, but they still make some mistakes.”
Water Valley turned the ball over on downs on their next two possessions, as the Cubs were determined to keep the Blue Devil rush attack under wraps. However, Leland couldn’t contain Logan and Johnson just before the half, as the backfield duo led the Blue Devils on an eight-play, 47-yard touchdown drive. Logan capped off the drive with a three yard touchdown run on fourth and goal with 1:01 remaining before the half. Water Valley held Leland on their last possession of the half, as the game headed into halftime tied 7-7.
“They (Water Valley players) were excited and they were up to the challenge,” said Blue Devil defensive coordinator Richard Russo. “We had a great defensive game plan and we took it to them for a half.”
Leland looked set to pull ahead on their first possession of the second half, as the Cubs drove down to the Water Valley 16-yard line. Junior cornerback/wide receiver Leo Daniels ended the Cub threat, intercepting a pass from Leland’s Jemarlous Moten in the end zone.
A Logan fumble on the ensuing possession cost Water Valley dearly, as Thomas connected with Stanley Dorsey for a 32-yard touchdown just three plays later. Sophomore safety Eric Buckley blocked the Leland extra point, as the Cubs went up 13-7 with 4:46 left in the third quarter. Leland extended their lead with a 69-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a one-yard touchdown run from Moten. Willie Norals converted the two point conversion, giving the Cubs a 21-7 lead as the third quarter expired.
“Number 2 (Moten) and number 5 (Dorsey) are as good as anybody we’ve seen besides (Bruce’s) Richard Freelon. They’ll do some damage in the playoffs,” said Russo. “They’re (Leland) going to make you pay sooner or later and they made us pay for our mistakes.”
A failed fake punt gave the Cubs’ the ball on the Water Valley 47 with 10:16 left in the game, and Leland punished the Blue Devils shortly thereafter. Dorsey rushed in from 22 yards out to give Leland a 27-7 lead with 6:50 remaining, as Water Valley blocked its second extra point of the night.
Moten intercepted yet another Johnson pass with 5:12 left in the game, returning it 43 yards for the score. Leland’s two point conversion attempt failed, as the Cubs went ahead 33-7.
The Blue Devils continued to scrap, as Water Valley found the scoreboard again through a 14-yard touchdown reception from senior wide receiver Tank Hervey, bringing the score to its final margin of 33-14.
“They’re (Water Valley players) not going to quit, they’ve put too much into it to quit. I knew right there at the end that we were going to keep fighting and go down and try to score and that’s what we did,” said Embry. “I’m proud of the guys for doing that, that’s important to this football program to go down and finish the ball game like that.”
Although the Blue Devils couldn’t advance out of the first round, Embry knows this was a very important step for his Water Valley football program, and its 12 seniors who finished their careers in the playoff loss.
“One of our goals was to make the playoffs and we did that; I think that was a good accomplishment. When you sit back in a week or so and reflect, from where we were in the spring to right now, I’m very pleased with us making the playoffs. We’ll build on that and we won’t be happy to just make the playoffs next year,” said Embry.
The first year head coach went on to acknowledge the contributions of a solid group of seniors.
“We had 12 seniors and they’ve done well all year. There are several of them that have never played football so I’m thinking that right now they’re wishing they were 9th graders. I think they’ve enjoyed themselves and they fought hard and I’m just proud of them. Some of those guys have scrapped it out for years and I’m proud of them to be the first building block in this football program. They got to the playoffs their senior year and that’s something they can be proud of.”
Grading The Blue Devils
Josh Johnson took over for junior Leo Daniels early in the season, as head coach Brad Embry looked to add a spark to the Blue Devil offense. Johnson produced a mixed bag of results in his first year of high school football, but the junior signal caller possesses a more than adequate arm and the ability to produce plays with his legs. The physical tools are there for Johnson to succeed, but his decision making will need to progress.
Water Valley’s most successful unit throughout the season proved to be the Blue Devil rushing attack. D.C. Logan, Torrey Horton, and J.D. Fondon produced a multi-faceted rushing attack that paced the Blue Devil offense. Logan finished the year with 1401 yards, ranking him atop the area’s rushing list.
Like Johnson, the Blue Devil wide receivers were somewhat sporadic throughout the season. Senior Tank Hervey got stronger as the year went on, but he struggled to make an impact early in the year. Leo Daniels, Chris Connard, and D’ante Rogers are great targets for Johnson to look for next season. Rogers has more physical ability than anybody on the Blue Devil roster, couple that with hard work this off-season, the junior could have a breakout 2009 season.
The Blue Devil offense line, led by seniors Ryan Bain and Tyler Jones, led the way for a strong rushing attack. Although this unit struggled at times, the Water Valley offensive line held up well throughout the season, clinching a playoff spot with a dominating performance against J.Z. George. Tommy Lipscomb and Zack Caulder will need to anchor this unit next season.
Defensive Line coach Bryant Mix’s unit led the defensive resurgence enjoyed by the Blue Devils in 2008. Seniors J.J. Woodard and Marrico Hayes were spectacular in their final seasons at Water Valley, while underclassmen Caulder, Malcolm Horton, and Barrett Larson contributed quality minutes.
Similar to the defensive line, the linebacker trio of J.D. Fondon, Nick Robinson, and Dewayne Samuel were vital in restoring the pride in the Blue Devil defense. Robinson and Samuel graduate, leaving only Fondon to lead this group next season. Fondon totaled 118 tackles in his sophomore season.
The defensive secondary for Water Valley was a revolving door for quite a while during the season, replacing players week after week. Although the youthful Blue Devil secondary gave up some big plays, Coach Shane Brown’s unit specialized in bend but don’t break defense. Freshmen Chris Connard and Tavi Toles have ability, but Daniels showed glimpses of being Water Valley’s biggest playmaker at cornerback toward the end of the season. Safeties Eric Buckley and Tommy St. Romain have tons of potential, as Buckley provides athleticism and speed, while Romain plays with a high motor and a nose for the football. A season of trial and error should pay huge dividends for Water Valley in 2009, as talent and ability will now be coupled with game experience.
The 2008 season began with questions abounding as Brad Embry took the reins at Water Valley. Wins over Williams-Sullivan, J.Z. George, and West Tallahatchie clinched a playoff spot for Water Valley in Embry’s first season, a year after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Couple that with a season opening win at rival Coffeeville, all reasonable goals for Embry’s bunch were achieved. However, losses to Bruce, Ackerman, and Eupora by a combined score of 89-40 shows there is still work to be done. Expectations should be higher in 2009, as Logan, Johnson, Fondon, and Daniels provide Embry with plenty of playmakers.