Walton defeats East Paulding in spring game defensive battle

The stands in Raider Valley finally had fans back in them to watch hosting Walton defeated East Paulding 17-13 Thursday night in the spring game.

Walton running back Noriega Thompson accounted for two rushing touchdowns to get the Raiders on the board. Thompson’s scores came from a 2-yard rush in the second quarter and a 71-yarder in the third. Rising senior quarterback Kaeden Gilstrap showed he is ready to take the reins of the Walton offense as the starting quarterback this season. Last season as a backup, he threw for 300 yards, 23 completions and four touchdowns. His great arm talent and quick release will be a difference-maker, and if he cannot find an open receiver his mobility will become a huge factor in the Raiders success.

The Walton offensive line is a key part of the team entering the 2024 season as the Raiders have to replace a majority of them, including Georgia freshman offensive tackle Daniel Calhoun and Air Force freshman offensive guard Sam Trainor. Nicholas Thorner and Patrick Burris will look to keep Gilstrap clean and keep the offense moving in 2024.

While the two teams were in an exhibition game, pads were flying all over the field in Raider Valley as Walton’s defense held East Paulding to just 13 points.

The defense for Walton still looks as reliable as the previous season with key players returning to the Raiders for the 2024 season. Going into his senior season, linebacker Jake Thorner totaled five sacks, one interception and 144 tackles on the season, averaging close to 10 tackles per game. Thorner picked up right where he left off last season for the Raiders. Including Thorner, Walton has a plethora of key players back on defense. Rising seniors — defensive end Hayden Halpaus, safety Ethan Stannard and cornerback Christian Ferrell — highlight the group. Those players combined for 139 tackles, four interceptions, two sacks, and a fumble recovery last season for the Raiders during their successful 14-1 season where they made the state championship.

On the offensive side of the ball, the wide receiver group for Walton showed their depth on Thursday night, displaying numerous looks with different personnel against East Paulding. Walton receivers such as the speedster Christian Ward, Malikai Speed, Caleb Carlson and Max McRaney are weapons in the Walton offense led by new offensive coordinator Michael Copley who replaced former offensive coordinator and current Cambridge head coach, Tyler Jones. Under Jones’ coaching last season, the Raiders offense was prolific, averaging close to 48 points per game, a program record.

Adding to the weapons on the Walton offense, tight end Jude Cascone has big shoes to fill replacing former Raider tight end, Hunter Teal. The newly Georgia-offered tight end totaled 13 receptions for 159 yards and three touchdowns last season for the Raiders. Last season, Teal and Cascone played a huge role in the Walton offense as they combined to become one of the most lethal tight end combinations in the state.

The special teams for Walton will have two new faces on the field as Bryant Gunnels takes over at punter for Tanner O’Brien and Matthew Ladner takes over at long snapper for Andrew Aston. While they had to replace some special teamers, kicker Sebastian Banai is back for his senior year after a very solid junior season, making 95 of 97 extra points, and 2 of 4 field goals.

 Walton is entering its eighth season under head coach Daniel Brunner and East Paulding is entering their third season under head coach Chris Hirshfield, the former offensive coordinator for Walton from 2017 to 2021. Walton is trying to replicate its 2023 season where it went 14-1 and fell to the Milton Eagles 31-21 in the state championship. East Paulding is looking to improve on last year’s record as it went 6-4 and lost to Lanier 21-14 in the first round of the playoffs.


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