WALKER – With three state championships and a state runner-up finish on his coaching resume’, Walker High’s Chad Mahaffey is adept in the developmental process of a state-level program.
When the Wildcats ended their season in the second round of the state playoffs for the first time in two decades, Mahaffey credited his senior class for a job well done.
But in order to truly transform Walker to such a level as some of the programs they annually compete with, or was the case this past season they faced during the 2019 season, Mahaffey realizes there’s still work to be done.
However, for the Wildcats’ 8-4 campaign – which included the District 4-5A runner-up and losses to the two participants (Acadiana and Destrehan) in the Class 5A state championship game, Mahaffey was named the 2019 All-Livingston Parish Coach of the Year.
“We competed against some of the best teams in our division,” Mahaffey said. “There’s a big step from competing and actually going ahead and winning. We’ve still got plenty of growth and hurdles to overcome, but I think it shows when you do things right and you’ve got good players, it gives us some things to be excited in Year 2 and beyond. We can work toward becoming the type of program we want to be.”
Mahaffey was the fourth different coach to direct Walker to a state playoff berth but earned the distinction as the first to guide the Wildcats beyond the first round of the playoffs since 1999.
Getting to that pivotal juncture included the Wildcats overcoming a 1-2 start after three games, dealing with injuries to their top two running backs and going on a six-game win streak to play for the District 4-5A championship at Zachary.
“Coming into the job I think you knew there had certainly been a lot of progress made in years past from five to 10 years ago,” said Mahaffey, who took over at Walker in March following nine seasons at University High. “They had, had a couple of winning seasons but as far as, ‘can you win a district championship. Can you advance in the playoffs’? We gave ourselves a chance in Week 10 to win a district championship and didn’t quite get it done. That would have been a nice end-of-the-year achievement for us.”
Mahaffey’s first season was set up with a couple of early brand-name challenges with a season opener against Madison Prep, which reached the Class 3A state quarterfinals, followed by a visit from tradition-rich Destrehan, which lost to Acadiana in the state championship game.
The Wildcats emerged with a 1-2 record that included a disappointing 54-34 road loss at Fontainebleau, and faced a difficult road trip to Landry-Walker (2017 state champion), before the start of District 4-5A play with Scotlandville providing the opposition, a team that was undefeated and ranked at the time of its visit.
A big night from wide receiver Brian Thomas, the running of Wright, and solid effort from the defense, equaled a 34-15 victory that Walker rode into the game with Scotlandville, which rolled up plenty of yardage, but the Wildcats forced five turnovers and Brown scored three rushing touchdowns and Thomas caught two more in a 35-27 win.
“At 1-2, there was no guarantee getting into this district, it was going to go the way it went,” Mahaffey said. “I appreciate the seniors for sticking with the plan and continuing to work to get better. We asked them what kind of year do you want to have? What are we going to do to get there? I felt like we were playing good football at the end of the year.”
Walker rode that wave into consecutive parish grudge battles, first at Live Oak followed by a home game with Denham Springs.
The Wildcats trailed the Eagles by a touchdown at halftime before Thomas got loose for a pair of touchdown receptions and sealed the game with a 55-yard return of an onside kick attempt.
Walker led DSHS 14-3 at halftime and held a 21-13 edge at halftime when the Wildcats exerted their will on the ground with Brown rushing for a pair of touchdowns to spark a 14-point fourth quarter.
“I have to credit our team, there were a lot of down to the wire games,” Mahaffey said. “Going into any game, I want to credit our kids, even the Destrehan and Zachary, because I don’t think there was a fear. There was respect for those programs had done. From a mental standpoint you at least give yourself a chance if you go in believing we’re going to go in and compete and play. When their backs were to the wall they generally stepped up and made plays.”
Never was that more evident than in a key road matchup at Central, where Walker lost the previous season.
The Wildcats twice faced 10-point deficits in the fourth quarter but rallied both times on a pair of TD passes from Ethan McMasters to Peyton Richard and Thomas, the latter covering 19 yards in the last 1:13 of the game for a 26-24 triumph.
That set up a showdown the District 4-5A crown at Zachary in a battle of unbeatens in league play in a game that lived up to its billing.
With Zachary threatening to sew up the victory with a late field goal late in the fourth quarter, Thomas blocked the attempt and Walker drove and scored on a 17-yard pass from McMasters to Brown, leaving the Wildcats within 35-33.
A two-point pass was broken up and subsequent onside kick was eventually recovered by Zachary.
“Those are the games that eat you up as a coach where you feel like you had a chance and didn’t get it done,” Mahaffey said. “To win a district championship, I thought the kids really wanted that. They were upset but they put forth a lot of work into that. You wanted them to have that feeling. Hopefully that will be something we can build on.”
The highwater mark of the season came a week later when Walker successfully crossed its playoff hurdle, leaving no doubt in the process.
The Wildcats, led by three-TD efforts from McMasters passing and Wright’s running, claimed the school’s first state playoff victory in Class 5A, leading 28-0 at halftime en route to blasting Thibodaux, 63-21, before bowing out a week later at undefeated and eventual state champion Acadiana.
“It’s just a learning experience,” Mahaffey said. “Credit to our seniors for their careers (29-16 in four years) and starting what’s hopefully more of a state-level program by getting that first (5A) win. You can’t be a big program and not win in the playoffs.
“Only one team gets to end the year happy,” Mahaffey said. “All you can really ask is, ‘Did we improve? Did we do the things the coaches asked’? I felt like our kids did that. I felt our coaching staff worked really hard. It’s a good starting point and I was proud to get to coach those guys this year.”