Walsh and Hughes hold the fort on HV defensive line

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF

   They took different routes to get there, but for John Hughes and Matt Walsh the destination has been the same.
   These two seniors have landed as the anchors of the Happy Valley Warrior defensive line.
   Hughes, who went to elementary school at Central, only started playing football his freshman year of high school. The funny thing is he didn't start out as a lineman, but as a skinny ninth grader that was put on the outside corner as a wide receiver.
   "My freshman year I gained about 50 pounds in the weight room," Hughes remembered. "I guess I was too slow as a receiver so they moved me to the line."
   That move turned out to be one of the best the Happy Valley coaching staff ever made. "If you looked at him as a freshman, the skinny little kid that he was, it's amazing." recalled Warrior head football coach Stan Ogg. "We were worried about him out there running sprints. That young man just came and wanted to play football.
   "He didn't come from our feeder program and we didn't know a lot about him. But, he's a quality young man with a lot of character. He's proven to be a good leader. He's come from a little receiver to a good sized lineman. When they come in as freshmen, you never know what they're going to look like. You have to believe in every one of them."
   Walsh took a more traditional method in getting here, playing ball from the youth leagues on. "I played flag football," explained Walsh. "I didn't play pee-wee, but I've played through middle school and high school. I've always been a lineman."
   His head coach is equally thankful for Walsh, who has attended Happy Valley all the way through school. "Matt was a big kid when he came in here," said Ogg. "But, he's grown up a lot, some physically and a lot mentally. He is a good leader and a stronger kid. A lot of people don't know that he's been banged up this year.
   "He played with a very painful shoulder. We've planned to rest him and limit the number of snaps he plays to keep him healthy, but he always gets out there. He does a nice job. He plays with his technique very well and is very coachable. You ask him to do something and he always gives you the effort."
   As a tandem, their play has helped to keep rival offenses honest and has pushed the Warriors to the second best defense statistically in the Watauga Conference.
   "Coach (Greg) Hyder always tells us that the line controls play," said Walsh about Happy Valley's defensive coordinator. "The first quarter and the first play of the game sets the tempo for the entire game. We have a lot of seniors on this line who believe that."
   Both realize they are a part of a bigger unit when on the field. "We've come together real nice lately," said Hughes about the Warrior line. "I hurt my knee and missed a couple of games. Kenneth Campbell came in and stepped up. Daniel Dover has gotten so much experience and Josh Smith did a real nice job.
   "The coaches moved Jordan Fenner from tight end to quick tackle and he's played real well too."
   Walsh, like Hughes plays on both sides of the ball. He passed on compliments to the players he's alongside on the offensive line. "We've had Daniel Dover and Josh Smith both do real well," Walsh commented. "We moved Daniel from center to strong guard and Cane Cannon, a freshman, came in and played real well at center.
   "Me and Jesse Bowers have played on the strong side of the line and when he goes out Andrew Bowman has played well. We not only have good starters, but we have good backups. We know if we go out of the game that everyone is compentent."
   Injuries can devastate any athletic team. That was evident in the case of Hughes, who was sorely missed in early season games he was absent, particularly the Hampton contest. "I was looking forward to that game," Hughes admitted. "I wanted to go up against Harry Page after playing him last year."
   Happy Valley wasn't as fortunate with the loss of another lineman Daniel Back in a scrimmage before the season officially began. "That was awful," said Hughes. "We would have had an all-senior line. We played together on the quick side of the line last year. He was the guard and I was at tackle. I hated when we lost him."
   Added coach Ogg about Back's departure, "He was another of our fourth-year linemen, who had been here since they were freshmen. He had a good spring and we were counting on him. We moved him a year ago from linebacker to end and he did a good job as a junior. That's unfortunate that he had a bad tear in the knee. We wish he was out there with us."
   With their friend unable to play, Hughes and Walsh each had to take a bigger role in the Warriors' overall scheme. Thanks in part to strong family upbringings, both were up to the challenge.
   John, the son of Sonny and Kathy Hughes, has a younger brother Zack, who is a freshman at Happy Valley. He stars in the classroom with a 3.4 GPA and expressed that he found enjoyment working in the woodshop.
   Hughes also passed on appreciation to the teaching staff at the high school, especially Mr. (Dean) Guffey who offered help when John was struggling in the advanced math class.
   Matt is the son of David and Donna Walsh and has a younger sister Cheryl that attends Happy Valley Middle School. Like Hughes, he is a solid student stating a preference for social studies and the sciences like biology and anatomy. He also praised Guffey for his help in the math classes and talked highly of Ben Godsey, listing him as a favorite teacher on Warrior Hill.
   After graduation from school, Matt would like to pursue a career as a crime scene investigator or as a history teacher.
   Each player had different reasons why they most enjoy football. "I like being out there with a big bunch of my friends and having fun," said Hughes about his favorite part of the game. "Since I didn't go to middle school here, it has helped me at high school meet new people. I've really enjoyed my four years playing football."
   Added Walsh, "I love to play. There's more glory on offense, but defense is more fun because you can use your hands a little more and not worry so much about things like holding penalties. I've always played football, because it's fun to play."
   Their enjoyment of the game has helped this Warrior team have a successful year. The regular season for John Hughes and Matt Walsh and the rest of the Tribe comes to a close Thursday night in a big way, playing at South Greene for a share of the Watauga Conference Championship.