Crashing the Class A party
SMITHERS, W.Va. - Scan the Class A playoff rankings and you'll see the usual suspects hovering in the top 10.
Madonna, St. Marys, Moorefield, Man, Williamstown, Greenbrier West, Wahama, Wheeling Central.
All but two of those teams played in a state championship game during the last 10 years - many of them multiple times - and the two that didn't (St. Marys, West) both made it as far as the playoff semifinals since 2008.
So it's the same old, same old, you know?
But, whoa now, hold on there. Wait a second.
Who's that team holding down the No. 3 spot?
That would be none other than the Valley Greyhounds.
After taking care of some recent nemeses over the past month, the Fayette County team has risen to third with three weeks remaining in the regular season. All that's left between the Hounds and a rare 10-0 record are dates against Richwood (2-5), Midland Trail (3-4) and Gilmer County (5-3).
"It feels pretty good,'' said Steven Mitchell, a senior center-defensive lineman. "We've put in a lot of hard work toward that. We got a lot of guys over the summer coming in and working hard, and it feels pretty good.''
Unlike those other programs listed above, Valley's postseason history is a modest one.
Veteran coach Benny Hopkins, in his 35th season, has taken the Greyhounds to the playoffs nine times, with his lone postseason victory coming in the 2011 first round against Meadow Bridge, a 22-6 win at Laidley Field.
Hopkins has been around long enough to realize that the ratings are window dressing until the final regular-season game is played on Nov. 9.
"Rankings don't mean anything right now,'' Hopkins said. "Rankings are for [reporters] to write about. Rankings mean something at the end of the year, and that's what we're shooting for - the end-of-the-year rankings. We're playing one game at a time, trying to get through week to week, and hopefully it will pay off in the long run.''
It's certainly paid off so far for the Greyhounds, who have handed out some lumps to teams that normally have their number.
They defeated county rival Fayetteville 44-34, giving them back-to-back wins over an opponent that had beaten them 10 straight times.
A week ago, they topped Parkersburg Catholic 38-15, avenging losses to the Crusaders the three previous years, one by 23 points and one by 28. Last year, Catholic romped 37-14 over a Valley squad that started out 6-0 and was ranked No. 4 in Class A.
"It feels good to beat them,'' said senior running back Keyshawn Payne, the team's top rusher with 784 yards and seven touchdowns.
"The players have stayed focused, play hard and practice hard. We've worked hard in the off-season, and I guess that's why we're here [at No. 3].''
Hopkins thinks the difference between now and then rests in the number of players that dutifully show up at the weight room after school and then proceed to the practice field.
"For a while there, we just had about 18 to 21 players,'' Hopkins said of a few years ago. "Last year we got about 41 out, and this year it's 46. They're not all playing, but when you get some bodies out there you can find some people to work with. It makes a difference in how you coach and what you do.
"We've got some kids who have a good attitude and work in the off-season and got better. We were beating our heads against the wall there a few years ago when we had 21, 22 players. Having 46 makes a world of difference . . . and the work ethic's a big thing. Plus, we've got some kids with some skill and that makes a little difference.''
Unlike some Class A teams, who hitch their hopes to a workhorse running back and ride him all season, Valley likes to spread the wealth.
Payne, who gains nearly 10 yards a carry, only gets about 11 rushing attempts per game. But the Greyhounds still churn about more than 278 yards on the ground per game behind a stable of backs.
Quarterback Raeshawn Breckenridge (334 yards, eight TDs) averages about nine carries a game, Dante Wilkerson (367 yards, three TDs) around six and fullback Casey Stewart (182 yards, two TDs), Darius Hutchinson (116 yards, one TD) and Henry Barron-Houchins (96 yards, one TD) about four each.
"We've got several kids who can run,'' Hopkins said. "We've been blessed this year with a lot of skill people. That's probably why we've won a little bit. We try to spread it out. We've got kids who can run, catch and throw, and that makes a difference.''
Breckenridge has attempted only 55 passes this season, but averages a whopping 271/2 yards per completion, giving him a total of 687 yards and four TD tosses. His top target is Druw Bowen (14 catches, 370 yards, three TDs).
"I'm not one of these guys throwing the ball all over,'' Hopkins said. "If I don't throw a pass, I'm happy.''
Plowing ahead with the running game certainly keeps linemen like Mitchell happy. Mitchell thinks another reason for the Greyhounds' roll is their dedication to the weight room, which is the first stop for the players once the bell sounds to end the school day.
"We've gotten bigger and faster,'' Mitchell said, "and a lot of us got stronger over the year. [Lifting] helps when most people have injuries around this time of the year. Really, we work hard in the weight room and we don't really get tired because Coach keeps us conditioned.''
It's certainly been rarified air recently for the Greyhounds, and they hope to keep both their bark and their bite going for several more weekends.
"[We want] a perfect season this year,'' Payne said. "We've got to stay focused like we've been saying, and not fall back and take no teams light.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.