East Xtra: Valley football cherishing its turnaround season
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When Chad Walsh became the third football coach in as many seasons at Valley High School on March 22, his mission was to get the team believing in itself and dig itself out of the quagmire that had yielded winless records in both the 2010 and '11 seasons.
It's time to pronounce the first-year coach's methods an absolute success. With just the regular-season finale at Ford City remaining on Friday night, the Vikings have won five consecutive games and have qualified for the WPIAL Class AA playoffs with an overall record of 6-2 and a 5-2 mark in Allegheny Conference play. They have come from behind in all four of their victories at home.
Add to that the possibility -- although slight -- that Valley could be playing host to a first-round playoff game when the postseason begins a week from Friday, and feelings bordering on giddy are spreading throughout the towns of New Kensington and Arnold that make up the district.
"The kids just bought into everything," said Walsh, who was an assistant coach at several locations, including Valley, before accepting the offer to become a head football coach for the first time in his career. A week of training camp at Slippery Rock University laid the foundation for a change in his players' attitudes, he said.
"We were able to concentrate on football and put our plan into place," the coach said. "We laid out a plan and told them what it was going to take to get there.
"As it went on, we started to see those pieces come together. I am extremely pleased the way things have gone this year. It's been a total team effort with myself, the staff and the kids."
Walsh believes his team's opening-week 14-7 victory against Deer Lakes that snapped a 22-game losing streak was momentous, as one might expect.
Following that win, Valley lost successive games to Burrell, 41-6, and Shady Side Academy, 16-6. The latter loss came against an opponent that Walsh thought his team could have beaten.
But it was the way the Vikings responded in a come-from-behind 9-8 victory against Freeport, which shares first place in the conference with Burrell, in the week after the loss to Shady Side that convinced him that this would not be "business as usual" for his team.
"We were down, 8-0, at the half, and we were able to beat that team," Walsh said. "That was a big turnaround; we made some adjustments and got that victory. From that point on, you could just see the attitude change. They seemed to believe in what we were doing, and they bought into our system. So far, good things have happened for us."
Walsh agrees that the move from Class AAA to Class AA likely helped Valley. But he allowed that there are some very good Class AA teams that could defeat some Class AAA teams. What sticks with this New Kensington resident is his team's willingness to work hard and listen to the coaching staff.
"Getting them to believe they could win and letting them know that the hard work was going to pay off [was crucial]," he said. "They bought into that.
"They'd stay after practice, watch film every week and prepared themselves for Friday's game. That was the biggest thing. They already knew how to lose. We were trying to get them to believe they could win."
For Valley to host a playoff game, the Vikings would have to get some help as Burrell and Freeport share the conference lead with 6-1 records. Playing a playoff game -- let alone hosting one -- was not in the coach's train of thought when he was putting workout regimens together when hired.
"They've maybe jumped ahead of expectations," Walsh said. "We felt we had the kids to do it, but to see it all come together as quickly as it has has been a surprise to everybody."
Last week, Valley junior running back Demetrius Houser rushed for 130 yards and scored a touchdown. But opponents would not be wise to key on him as Walsh has had nine players running the ball in the Vikings' first eight games.
"We try to establish the running game in every game," the coach said. "We have four or five running backs who are capable of running the football."
Walsh is the third head coach the Valley seniors have had in three years. Some of the players embraced his philosophy right away; it took longer for others.
"Once they saw how things were progressing in camp, and we had two decent scrimmages and got that opening win over Deer Lakes, you could see they started to believe we could do that every week," he said.
"The seniors have been very good, especially [senior wide receiver/defensive back] Chaz Cheatham. He bought in and led the way."
Younger players also are paying attention.
"A lot of kids want to play football again," Walsh said, referring to the school's underclassmen. "The younger kids are looking forward to the opportunity to wear the black and gold on Friday nights."
The Valley team's success has not escaped the community's attention.
"Everyone [in New Kensington and Arnold] is excited," Walsh said. "You can talk about Valley football in a positive vein again. We've been behind at halftime in all four of our wins at home, and we've battled back. When the other team goes up, you don't see any panic."