Huntington’s Jadon Hayes is one of several seniors that were thrust into the spotlight early, having to fill holes as injuries piled up on the Highlanders in seasons past.
If the first two weeks are any indication and Hayes and his upperclassmen teammates can avoid those same kinds of injuries, those early growing pains may pay off.
Hayes, a second-team All-State selection at defensive back a year ago and the team’s leading rusher the past two seasons, is a big part of why Huntington finds itself as one of just six remaining unbeaten teams in Class AAA (Ripley, Musselman, Martinsburg, University and Hurricane are the others).
“We’ve got a pretty veteran group,” coach Billy Seals said. “They’ve been in a lot of big football games.”
The teams Huntington has beaten, the way it has beaten them and the circumstances surrounding those wins may make the Highlanders’ early-season work even more exemplary.
Belfry (Ky.) is gunning for a fifth-straight 3A state title in Kentucky and held a 20-point lead on the Highlanders in the second quarter of the opening game before Huntington rallied for a 45-34 win.
Then came last week’s grueling win over Spring Valley, a team that played for a Class AAA state championship a year ago.
The Timberwolves were idle the opening week and had stewed over a 17-13 loss to Huntington a year ago, a game that served as the Timberwolves’ only regular-season defeat.
But even coming off an emotional win in its opener, Huntington was able to regroup and refocus enough to register another big win against what figures to be another stout Spring Valley squad.
“We’re just experienced, we know how the game goes and we know how to overcome adversity,” Hayes said. “That first week we were shell-shocked. We had to overcome the adversity and play as a team.”
“That win at Belfry, we’re in the second quarter down 27-7 kind of scratching our heads, but we kept battling,” Seals said. “Last week, we challenged our kids. We know Spring Valley is going to dominate up front and we challenged our front to go out and get a little due credit on our end and the kids took that to heart.”
At the center of it all is Hayes, who has already rolled up 295 yards and six touchdowns in Huntington’s first two contests. That included five rushing touchdowns against Belfry, a school record.
Hayes was forced into action as a freshman at safety due to an injury and then had to shoulder a bulk of the offensive load as a sophomore.
“I was really nervous, but once I stepped in it was already the playoffs,” Hayes said. “By the time halftime came around, I was good.”
Hayes said he’s still contemplating his playing options at the next level and isn’t sure which of his two positions is his favorite, much less which he’d like to play.
“Sometimes it’s more fun playing defense,” Hayes said. “You get to hit someone instead of being hit.”
Seals is just glad he has him on either side of the ball.
“He’s very dynamic, very intelligent,” Seals said. “His football IQ is really high and that allows us to do more things with him.
“He’s one of those kids that is very multi-dimensional. He can do a lot of things. We’re thinking about redshirting him so he can stay another year.”
Hayes carries that team-first mentality into basketball as well as he finds any way he can to influence the outcome. In last year’s state championship win over Capital, Hayes finished with nine rebounds, six assists, eight steals and a block, flirting with a triple-double despite not scoring a point.
Despite how difficult the road has been, it won’t get any easier with a road trip to George Washington up this Friday and dates left with Capital, Ripley, Hurricane, South Charleston and Cabell Midland, among others.
Last year, Huntington faded a bit after a 4-0 start, going 3-4 the rest of the season, including a 34-23 loss to South Charleston in the first round of the playoffs.
This time around, Hayes and the Highlanders are determined to carry the early momentum by taking the season a game at a time.
“Everybody has a role on a team, and as long as you do your role, the team should be good,” Hayes said. “We’ve talked about [winning a state championship] since we were freshmen. This is our last go-around. It’s bittersweet, but we want it.”