With the quarterfinal round on the horizon, this is the time of year when things start to get serious in the state prep football playoffs.
It’s also the time of year when things get serious regarding the Kennedy Award, which goes to the top player in West Virginia.
Since 1989, the Kennedy Award has been won just once by a player whose team did not make the playoff semifinals, which is the goal for all teams competing this weekend.
Four players around the state seem to have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack heading into the quarterfinal round — tailback Jadon Hayes of Huntington, quarterback Jeremy Dillon of Mingo Central, quarterback Tyson Bagent of Martinsburg and running back Freddy Canary of South Harrison. All four play on teams still alive and seeded no lower than second in their respective classes.
Hayes has picked up a lot of support throughout the season as the Class AAA No. 1 Highlanders have remained unbeaten playing in the cutthroat Mountain State Athletic Conference. He is the unquestioned leader of a team that’s 11-0 with nine wins against playoff teams in West Virginia and Kentucky.
In 11 games, Hayes has run for 2,013 yards and 30 touchdowns — both program records — with only one game less than 125 yards on the ground. He’s also caught 12 passes for 180 yards and two TDs and returned two punts and a blocked field goal for scores.
But that’s just one side of the ball for Hayes, a senior co-captain. On defense, he’s made 57 tackles from his secondary position, five of them for losses, batted down 13 passes, forced two fumbles and recovered two others. He has no interceptions, as coach Billy Seals explains, “because no one throws to his side.’’
Seals thinks Hayes’ versatility in all three phases of the game makes him deserving of the Kennedy.
“He never comes off the field,’’ Seals said. “For him to play that way at a high level, every snap, I think he’s the most valuable player in the state.
“If the Kennedy Award is for the best player in the state, then it’s hard to ignore Jadon. If you look at all these other guys around the state, they all play one way. Jadon plays offense, defense and special teams, nearly every play of every game. He’s being recruited by FBS schools to play cornerback. That tells you something about him.’’
Probably running neck-and-neck with Hayes is Dillon, last year’s Kennedy winner who has done nothing to knock himself from contention this season.
Dillon has already thrown for 39 touchdowns in 11 games, two more than he accomplished last year in 14 games while leading the Miners to their first state championship in Class AA.
The Marshall basketball recruit has thrown for 2,634 yards and been intercepted just five times. He’s also run for 1,042 yards and 17 TDs.
Unlike last year, when Dillon really played defense in just two games — the state semifinals and finals — he also mans a regular safety position on defense. Dillon also serves as the team’s punter and place-kicker as Mingo Central has run its two-year win streak to 25 games and owns the No. 1 seed in the AA playoffs.
“Jeremy is a special kid,’’ said Miners coach Joey Fields. “He can be our best receiver, he could be our best running back. He is our best defensive player. He’s our best football player. He’s the best football player to come through this county ever. I believe he’s the best football player in the state of West Virginia.’’
Fields said Dillon has been asked to do more this season, in part because his skills have developed in just his second year at the position, and in part because the Miners have given up a lot more points this season and starters are playing longer in games.
“We’re asking him to do more this year,’’ Fields said, “because he’s been able to grasp the offense. It’s centered around his abilities, and he’s gotten so much better at it.
“He knows when the game matters, it’s going to be in his hands and he’s the type of player who wants the ball in his hands. He understands what the end goal is, and what we expect out of him. He’s become a leader this year. Last year, he was the best player on the team, but this year, it’s his team. He’s leading. He took over, and we go as he goes.’’
Hayes and Dillon may have a built-in advantage over their closest competitors in the Kennedy voting, which is done by members of the West Virginia Sports Writers Association. Unlike Martinsburg’s Bagent, they play offense, defense and special teams instead of just offense. Unlike Canary, who plays at Class A South Harrison, they do it at a higher level of competition.
However, that doesn’t mean that Bagent and Canary won’t pick up a lot of support around the state, because their offensive numbers are also primo.
Bagent, who is 35-3 as a starting quarterback and riding his own 25-game win streak with the defending AAA champion and No. 2 seed Bulldogs, has improved as a passer and protects the ball like few at his position.
He’s completing 70 percent of his attempts for 2,453 yards and 31 touchdowns. He’s thrown just four interceptions and taken but one sack all season. He’s also run for six scores.
Bagent, however, shares the bill with Martinsburg’s smothering defense, which limits opponents to 8.1 points and 165.6 yards per game. The Bulldogs have forced 27 turnovers and sacked enemy QBs 27 times. The defense often gives the ball to Bagent and the offense in favorable field position.
The speedy Canary is coming off a record-setting effort in last week’s playoff opener, as he ran for a preliminary-round mark of 368 yards and scored five TDs in a 58-19 verdict over Richwood.
Already an eight-time state track champion in sprints and relay events, Canary has proven durable as a ball-carrier. He’s run 203 times for 2,027 yards and 36 touchdowns and has two other scores.
South Harrison (10-1), the No. 2 seed in Class A, hosts Wheeling Central at Robert C. Byrd in Friday’s quarterfinal round.