CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Justin Ware could be the best running back you almost never heard of. After not playing football last season, the Walker Valley senior decided to rejoin the team in 2012. At the time he was going to be a part of a crowded backfield that included rising seniors Kelvin Wells and Gabe Cartwright.
He entered the year with the goal that Mustangs coaches would recognize him as a good player.
They've taken notice, and so have a lot of opposing coaches.
Ware enters tonight's Class 5A first-round game against Lenoir City with 1,026 yards rushing and 14 total touchdowns. He burst onto the scene with a 150-yard, four-touchdown performance against Hixson the second game of the season, and he since has enjoyed consistent production for the 5-5 Mustangs.
Wells transferred to McMinn County during the offseason, and Cartwright has been nursing injuries throughout the year, so Ware has turned into the focal point of coach Glen Ryan's wing-T attack.
"We always knew that Justin had speed. The biggest concern about this knucklehead was him holding onto the football," Ryan said. "We thought he'd be able to help with the occasional run, but he was very loose with the ball. We weren't sure he could be an every-down back."
Ware came into training camp wanting to show what he could do. Once he got the chance, he had to show how well he could do it. In addition to his 12 rushing touchdowns, he also had a 48-yard touchdown reception and a kickoff retun for a score against rival Cleveland. He accounted for three of the team's four scores in a 56-28 loss.
When others were defecting from the program that had won three of its prior 30 games, Ware joined them.
"Even when I wasn't playing football, I always supported Walker Valley," he said. "I've got a lot of cousins that go to Cleveland, and they were telling me to go there, but I wanted to stay here. When we won the first three games, it was great because I was a part of this team and not trying to go everywhere else like others did."
In the Hixson game, he broke his first run for 72 yards and a touchdown.
"Coach trusted me to go out and be productive," he said. "At that point, I knew that it was my chance to show everybody I could play."
For Walker Valley, the five wins entering tonight's contest are an improvement but not the level Ryan wants. Still, they do equal another opportunity to step on the field.
"For the seniors, I'm tickled to death for them," Ryan said. "It sets the tone for the rest of the guys here on out. We've set a bar and don't want to drop below that mark."
Although the Mustangs hadn't sniffed the playoffs since 2008 and entered this season on a 16-game losing streak, Ryan was confident. That rubbed off on his players, particularly Ware.
"I just thought back to what Coach said, that if we work hard through the year we can make the playoffs," he said. "The team worked together and worked hard enough to where things didn't end like they did last year.
"We never took a play off, and I never had a doubt we'd get in somehow."