High school football: South’s Walden serving pancakes on Fridays

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 26, 2023

By Mike London

LANDIS — Ryan Walden, generously listed on the South Rowan roster at 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, doesn’t look large enough or mean enough to be playing left guard on offense and tackle on defense, but he’s getting the job done.

And then some.

“A lot of our big guys are sort of small,”  South head coach Chris Walsh said with a chuckle. “But Ryan is the leader of our offensive line group. He’s got 41 pancake blocks, and I don’t believe he’s allowed a sack yet. Our quarterback (Brooks Overcash) probably owes him a dinner.”

Walsh knocks on wood as he talks about those numbers. South (3-6, 2-4) still has one South Piedmont Conference game left, and it’s against rival Carson. Carson has players like East-West All-Star selection Tristen McBride operating in the trenches.

“Carson has a fantastic defense,” Walsh admitted.

South isn’t fantastic yet, but is making progress. While the team owns as many wins as the Raiders have managed in any season since 2018, South is still a perpetual underdog. Based on the respected Massey Ratings, they were 15-point underdogs on the road at East Rowan on Friday, but the Raiders dominated the second half and won 32-13.

Sometimes the underdogs win in sports. You never know. The Diamondbacks just beat the Phillies.

A key for South was surviving the early stages of the game at East. The Mustangs were pounding them. It could have been 21-0 after the first quarter. But South got a 98-yard fumble return from cornerback Macon Fuller and somehow was only down 13-7.

“East has good players,” Walden said. “I know they haven’t won yet, but they’ve got talented guys. (Gavin) Walker is a very good quarterback. It wasn’t going our way for a while, but we stuck together and kept believing in each other. We knew we had a good game plan going in, and we were confident. And then Macon got his touchdown, and we were right back in it.”

At halftime, East led 13-12, but South’s comeback had begun with a safety and a field goal. Momentum had swung. South back Landon Richards had more than 100 yards by halftime, and he and South’s offensive line were starting to impose their will.

And then South got the ball to start the second half.

Richards got 21 yards on his first touch. The Raiders plowed 80 yards for a go-ahead score. They never looked back.

“Look, I play defense, too, so I know what it’s like trying to tackle Landon in practice,” Walden said. “It’s not much fun. I had some good down blocks on that drive, and we had some good plays where I pulled and got a block going right. We put together an outstanding drive. We executed, did what we prepared to do all week in practice. I was very pleased with how we moved the ball.”

Richards basically ended the suspense with a 54-yard burst in the fourth quarter immediately after the Raiders recovered a fumble.

“That was actually an unusual play,” Walden said. “I thought Landon was coming behind me, but then I didn’t see him. I’m wondering where he is, but when I do spot him, he’s running with nothing but grass in front of him. He saw a hole, and he hit it.”

Richards enjoyed his second humongous game of the season.

He’s missed two full games, including the opener against Union Academy — a 1A school that now has a 1-8 record. He might have put up 300 yards in that one.

Richards has nearly 1,000 yards in the seven games that he’s played. That’s mostly due to colossal efforts in South’s SPC wins against Central Cabarrus and East. Richards had 38 carries for 288 yards on Friday, 7 yards shy of the school record.

“Landon runs with purpose,” Walden said. “Great downhill runner. Tackling him is a tall task.”

But no back, no matter how tough he is, can do it without an offensive line. That’s where Walden and his buddies — tackles Boston Heller and Semaj Lipscomb, center Jamie Klassette and right guard Gage Overcash come in. Ian McLemore coaches that group.

“Our linemen deserve a lot of love for what happened at East,” Walsh said. “And you can include our tight end, Alex Furr. He was a sixth offensive lineman at East because we only threw the ball four times.”

Like most of South’s players, Walden is a junior. Injuries forced him to become a varsity performer as a freshman, but he demonstrated a fearlessness that let the coaching staff know that he was going to be a player in the years ahead.

Then his sophomore season ended in the second game. He tore an ACL on the last play of the third quarter against North Rowan and had to watch the rest of the season.

“Nine months of rehab from the ACL, and that was hard, but the hardest part was watching your teammates struggle and not being able to help,” Walden said. “We went 1-9 when I was a freshman, and then 1-9 again when I was a sophomore. That’s hard.”

There are still times when it’s hard. There are times when South is undersized and overmatched. South lost to Robinson 65-0 and to Northwest Cabarrus 63-0, although most  teams would be overmatched by those two.

But there are also going to be more and more nights when the Raiders have a chance in the SPC, nights when they can compete.

“We’re learning how to win, and that’s always a process,” Walsh said. “I try to keep things in a historical perspective for our guys. OK. we just beat East for the first time in nine years. OK, we just scored the most points South has scored against East in 19 years. They need to hear things like that. I want them to know we’re getting better every day.”