By Reid Bankston
WATER VALLEY – Heading into Water Valley’s division opener against Nettleton, on the heels of two heartbreaking losses, Blue Devil Head Coach Brad Embry knew his kid’s character would be put to a stern test.
Hampered by illness and a misfiring offense, the Blue Devils simply had to deliver against the Tigers, and thanks to another lights out defensive performance, they did.
“It’s easy to say we were close, but it’s still an L. I think honesty is the best thing and I told them that when we lost two weeks ago, we had five kids out,” said Embry. “I don’t want to make excuses, but you can be honest to. I let them know that I know that and I still believe in them.”
The Blue Devils followed the same plot as previous weeks, but in the end, it was Water Valley that would emerge victorious this time around. Thanks to a 42-yard strike from Josh Johnson to Chris Conard, and a last gasp interception from freshman Devin Fleming, Water Valley (3-3, 1-0) toppled the Nettleton Tigers 7-0 to get a crucial division win.
It was good for our confidence and it’s really good in terms of setting us up for hosting a first round playoff game,” said defensive coordinator Richard Russo. “I don’t know if a lot of people realize how good an offense Nettleton truly is. You have to be tickled to death with how we played on defense.”
Midway through the first quarter, it looked as if Water Valley, behind an improved offensive line, would strike first. However, another turnover inside the opposition’s 20 yard line ended the drive. Senior D.C. Logan was once again on the wrong side of the turnover, but Embry was adamant that he wouldn’t try to tone down his star running back’s effort.
“They (Nettleton) stood D.C. (Logan) up and just stripped him, but that’s just him. He’s going to go lights out every down,” said Embry. “I like that problem, he plays with great effort, and that’s (fumbles) going to happen sometimes, we just have to cut them back.”
On Water Valley’s next offensive possession, another lengthy drive was ended inside the Tiger 20. This time, it was quarterback Josh Johnson at fault, as the senior mis-timed his throw to sophomore Chris Conard, leading to a Tiger interception.
In what was turning into a sloppy turnover battle, it was the Tigers that were in the giving mood on their next possession. A fumble, recovered by defensive lineman Zach Caulder, ended Nettleton’s biggest threat of the first half.
Water Valley wasted little time making the Tigers pay, as Johnson, presenting the same throw as his previous interception, made no mistake this time. The dual sport star connected with Conard on a slant from 42 yards out on a third and five, giving Water Valley a 7-0 lead with 5:45 left in the second quarter.
“I was hoping I would get one. The first one he threw was a pick, he should’ve thrown it earlier, but I got with him and told him to throw it quicker,” said Conard. “The second one he looked the ball in and threw it quicker and all I saw was the end zone.”
Embry, who has brought his passing attack along slowly throughout the season, was extremely pleased to see Johnson and Conard finally connect.
“I told him (Johnson) I was going to call it again, and we went out there and he stuck it in that tight window. All eleven that went into that play did a great job executing it,” said Embry.
Coming out of the locker room, it was more of the same from the Blue Devil defense, as Russo’s self proclaimed “wrecking crew” lived up to the billing and then some.
The Tigers were the fourth opponent of the year to be held under 200 total yards, and the second to be shutout. J.D. Fondon, C.J. Jackson, and Eric Buckley led the way for the Blue Devils, combining for 39 tackles, six tackles for loss, and one forced fumble.
Jackson, who was vastly inexperienced coming into the season, has proven to be Water Valley’s big play specialist on defense, as well as a pass rushing nightmare for opposing offenses.
“Our defense is tough, they present problems for people. They really play well, they get after you,” said Embry. “We’ve been through a lot, but all of those guys in there have scrapped.”
Although the Tigers had marginal success in the passing game, most of it coming on the game’s final drive against a extremely conservative Blue Devil defense, the Tigers never looked likely to score.
Nettleton’s final threat was ended with ten seconds to go in the game, as a Fleming interception deep in Blue Devil territory wrapped up the win for Water Valley. Fleming, largely a spot contributor in his freshman season, drew endless compliments from Embry for his hard work and dedication after the game. The smiles, one worn by a shy freshman, the other worn by a thrilled head coach proved how big Fleming’s interception could be over the course of the season.
“I call him ninth grader all the time, but he’s a good one. That’s indicative of what he’s done since he walked off that 8th grade practice field,” said Embry. “He’s busted his tail. When we show up to go to work, he’s here. He’s a ninth grader, but he’s much more mature than that.”
After securing their first division win, Water Valley must now turn their attention to Aberdeen (5-2,1-0), the classification favorite entering the season. The Bulldogs, led by Mississippi State commitment Jamerson Love, are high scoring and high flying coming off two victories in which they scored a combined 103 points.
“They (Aberdeen) have a tremendous set of skill guys, and they have (Jamerson) Love, who is a true burner. If you give them a seam or space, they’ll make you pay,” said Russo. “There is zero margin for error when you play this much athleticism, so our kids are really going to have to come out and execute.”
Water Valley’s playoff hopes do not solely rest on their matchup with the Bulldogs, but the Blue Devils must feel like they have everything to gain against Aberdeen, including the inside track to a region title.
“A lot of publications had Aberdeen picked to win 3A, not just the division so it’s a terrific opportunity for us to shock the world and for us to let people know that Water Valley football is back in a big way,” said Russo.