Kerry Martin Jr. broke into high school football as a receiver and a defensive back, and was a key component as a freshman when Capital made it to the 2015 Class AAA championship game.
Nothing, though, could prepare Martin for the culture shock of becoming the starting quarterback for the Cougars, which he did as a sophomore, and having to fill the shoes of TyRhee Pratt, a four-year starter, Kennedy Award winner and one of the leaders of Capital’s 2014 state title team.
All in all, Martin fared pretty well that season, but this year, he took a quantum leap as a junior. He cut down his turnovers, amped up his passing and rushing totals, became a team leader himself and helped direct the Cougars back into the playoff semifinals.
For those efforts, Martin has been selected as the Gazette-Mail Kanawha Valley Player of the Year, leading the 26-member All-Valley football team.
Class AAA quarterfinalist Hurricane leads the All-Valley squad with five selections, followed by Capital with four and AAA playoff entry George Washington with three. All 12 Kanawha Valley schools are represented on the team.
Capital’s Jon Carpenter, who guided his team to a 9-4 record and a fifth straight berth in the playoff semifinals, was chosen as the Kanawha Valley Coach of the Year, while St. Albans freshman quarterback R.T. Alexander earned the Rookie of the Year award.
Carpenter helped develop the boundless skills of the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Martin, who wound up setting school records in passing yardage (2,531) and touchdown passes (31) this season, and also led the team in rushing (990 yards, 17 TDs) and played spot duty as a safety on defense.
He managed all that despite the team’s major overhaul on offense, which placed more responsibility directly on his shoulders. Including Martin, the Cougars returned just four starters on offense this season, including only one offensive lineman (Jashaud Barrett). The team’s leading rusher last year, running back Deshaun James, only played the final four games due to eligibility issues.
Yet Martin conducted an offense that hardly missed a beat — cranking out nearly 40 points per game with a balanced attack that averaged 375 yards (200 passing, 175 rushing). Capital beat five playoff teams in the regular season and two more in the postseason, Wheeling Park and University, before falling to defending champion Martinsburg in the semifinals 49-28.
During the run, Martin’s play caught the eye of Division I recruiters, with three extending offers so far — Cincinnati, Toledo and Marshall.
Carpenter also watched the growth of his junior quarterback through the highs and the lows of being the team’s focal point.
“We had some other guys stepping up to help him,’’ Carpenter said, “especially the receivers — [Deishawn] Harper, [Anthony] Pittman and [K.J.] Figures. All those guys helped him gain a lot of confidence.
“I think he understands now. It’s kind of like being the head coach, maybe. You get too much credit when it goes good, and too much credit when it goes bad.’’
Martin flashed his special skill set on multiple occasions — a season-high 304 yards passing and four TDs during a wild 55-49 win at Cabell Midland, cemented on a 65-yard Hail Mary to Pittman on the game’s final play, and a career-best 189 yards rushing and two scores in a 24-13 victory at George Washington, ending a two-year hex against the city rival Patriots.
He even took his show on the road in the playoffs. Veteran University coach John Kelley found out first-hand just how elusive and creative Martin can be during his previously unbeaten team’s 48-24 home loss to Capital in the AAA quarterfinals.
Late in the third quarter, Martin took a snap from the Hawks 6-yard line, waited patiently for an open receiver that never materialized, then tucked the ball and ran past defenders to the pylon in the right corner of the end zone. His score gave Capital a commanding 35-10 lead.
“On that touchdown he got, we had everything taken care of,’’ Kelley said with a wince. “We had everything covered. And then his athleticism took over. We didn’t have an answer for that. I know a lot of people didn’t have an answer for it all year.’’
Martin was selected at quarterback on the All-Valley offense for a second straight year, as was George Washington junior Grant Wells, the centerpiece of the Patriots’ playoff team.
Wells, who has committed to Marshall, not only threw for 1,895 yards and 10 touchdowns, but also led GW in rushing with 481 yards and nine scores. As a punter, he averaged 34.3 yards a boot, placing 19 kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
The All-Valley running backs are workhorse sophomores who each went over 1,000 yards — Hurricane’s Christian Hill and Riverside’s Caden Easterling.
Hill ran for 1,659 yards and 14 TDs on 274 carries (about 23 per game) and went over 100 yards in all but two of 12 games — at Paintsville, Kentucky and at Parkersburg when he left in the first quarter with a shoulder injury that nagged him the rest of the season.
Easterling gained 1,028 yards and scored 12 TDs, carrying more than 22 times per game as the Warriors again flirted with the playoffs, finishing at 18th in the ratings, two spots out of a berth.
The offensive line includes Will Anderson (St. Albans), Ben Billanti (Riverside), Grant Dickson (Winfield), Maven Meadows (Poca) and Caleb Whittington (Sissonville).
The receivers are Capital’s Pittman, who ranked among the state leaders with 14 touchdown receptions to go along with team-highs of 40 catches and 776 yards, and Hurricane’s Dakota Williams, who grabbed 40 passes for 816 yards and eight TDs.
The utility player on offense is Winfield quarterback Andrew Huff, who threw for 1,917 yards and 29 TDs and ran for 877 yards and 10 scores despite missing a game with an injury.
The kicker is Hurricane’s Timothy McCutchen, who led the Kanawha Valley with eight field goals (including a long of 40 yards), converted all 40 of his extra-point kicks and averaged nearly 33 yards per punt.
Capital, South Charleston, George Washington and Hurricane each placed two players on the All-Valley defense.
The Cougars supplied their top two tacklers in linebacker Chase Goldsmith and defensive end Breece Hoff (school-record 171/2 sacks), while SC had linebackers Drew Joseph and Jalen Jones, GW was represented by defensive end Owen Tillis and linebacker Tanner Williams and Hurricane by linebacker Payton Lunsford and defensive back Curon Cordon.
Others on defense included lineman Hunter Thomas (Sissonville) and defensive backs Jayson Barrett (St. Albans), Ethan Burgess (Buffalo) and Nick Reip (Nitro), and punter Justin Stover (Herbert Hoover).
Carpenter took Capital to the Class AAA playoff semifinals for a fifth straight year — the longest current streak in the state — despite having to do some major rebuilding on offense, as detailed above, and tackling a schedule that included eight playoff teams in either West Virginia or Kentucky.Since taking over as Cougars coach in 2010, Carpenter carries a record of 73-25 with seven playoff appearances in eight years. His postseason record is 12-6.
Carpenter edged Winfield’s Craig Snyder and Hurricane’s Jeremy Taylor — two other playoff quarterfinal teams — for the coach of the year honor.
Alexander, the Rookie of the Year, turned more than a few heads as he had St. Albans on the cusp of its first playoff berth since 2007. The Red Dragons (4-6) finished 17th, one spot out of the Class AAA postseason.
Under the tutelage of acknowledged quarterback guru and SA coach Scott Tinsley, Alexander completed 59 percent of his passes (157 of 267) for 1,998 yards and 12 touchdowns against 18 interceptions. He also ran for three scores, including two first-half TDs in a 16-6 win at South Charleston.
Alexander kept the Red Dragons competitive all season, and nearly engineered one of the biggest upsets of the year, throwing for 251 yards and two TDs in a 44-37 overtime loss to University (11-1), an eventual Class AAA playoff quarterfinalist and the No. 3 playoff seed.
He’s the son of former South Charleston standout running back Robert Alexander, who captured two Kennedy Awards (1975-76) before playing at WVU and in the NFL.
Runner-up for the Rookie award was South Charleston freshman defensive end Zeiqui Lawton (6-3, 240).
Along with All-Valley linebackers Joseph and Jones, Lawton led a defense that was the backbone of SC’s season, which ended in the program’s fifth straight playoff berth. Lawton ended with 40 solo tackles, 40 assists and seven tackles for loss.