After a tough loss to Hampton, Happy Valley's season appeared to be headed in the same unwanted direction as 2012.
Two games later, a pair of key late-game plays have changed Happy Valley's fortunes — and the Warriors now have a realistic chance of reaching the Class 3A playoffs.
The first important step came on the last play against Johnson County in Week 4. The Warriors defended a potential game-winning pass in the end zone to secure a 6-0 win.
On Friday night, the Warriors converted a fourth down to keep the ball and run out the clock in a 28-26 win over Abingdon, Va.
So the Warriors will take a record of 3-3 into their biggest game of the season, a home contest against Three Rivers Conference rival and Class 4A state power Elizabethton.
“We were 1-3, and in our locker room we were so frustrated,” said Warriors' head coach Larry Shively. “We knew we could have had a couple more wins. We were a couple of plays from a totally different record.
“(Friday) night was such a big win to continue the momentum and get back to the .500 mark. The way things are set up by the TSSSA — in its infinite wisdom — every game is a playoff game. (Abingdon) was one we had to have so you don't have to rely on someone in West Tennessee losing.”
One of the biggest parts of the story was the way Happy Valley responded — a situation Shively blamed himself for allowing to happen. Abingdon got a pick six, and then another interception to set up a short field.
“We got off the school bus, and we were down 13-0,” said Shively. “I saw some things on tape I thought we could take advantage of in the passing game. I got us in the hole.
“But our thing is the next play. We told the kids, 'We're OK.' The kids didn't hang their heads.”
Shively said things turned around when he went old school on Abingdon.
“I said, 'We're going to run the football,' ” said Shively. “We marched it down the field, and I could the kids' chests sticking out when they saw we could run the ball. I don't think we threw another pass.”
Happy Valley eventually took a 16-13 lead into halftime, and never trailed in the second half. The Warriors simply rode the sturdy shoulders of Phillip Garland, who rushed for 332 yards and scored three touchdowns.
“Oh man, Phillip ran it extremely hard,” said Shively. “In 17 years, he runs as hard as anybody I've ever seen. He runs with a passion.”
It wasn't just Garland's running that made a difference. It was superior offensive line play, said Shively.
“Phillip would be the first to tell you we blocked really well last night,” said Shively. “I thought the offensive line played its best game of the year. It was all of them: Eli Hyder, Jake Griggs, Conner Cross, Nathan Roark and Tyler Jackson.
“Eli is just a dominant force at times, and the running backs blocked well: Austin Hicks for Phillip and vice-versa.”
Hicks also had a big game, and was the player who had a 9-yard gain on fourth down at Abingdon's 10-yard line to seal the victory with just under a minute left on the clock. Hicks finished with 90 of the Warriors' 453 yards as a team.
And that total came against a team led by former Science Hill head coach John Bowles.
“He's a wonderful coach,” said Shively. “Any time you move the ball and get a first down against a John Bowles team, that's doing something because they are so fundamentally sound.”
Now the Warriors face the challenge of a team just as serious about running the football as Happy Valley is. Garland has rushed for 962 yards on the season in six games while Elizabethton's Ethan Thomas has totaled 998 yards rushing in five games.
“It will be two of the better running backs in East Tennessee,” said Shively. “But it's not Phillip versus Ethan. It's our roster versus their roster in what should be a great environment.”