In all the years I’ve covered high school football in West Virginia (hint: it goes back to the 1970s), I can’t recall a season quite like this one when it comes to the Kennedy Award.
Most years, the state’s top individual honor is basically decided from a group of just a few players — two, three, maybe four, tops. This season, however, is different. It’s starting to resemble an all-comers competition — players from all three classes, all skill positions and from all corners of the state.
As members of the West Virginia Sports Writers Association check out the candidates in the coming days, they’ll notice that every section of the state seems to have a favorite son in this election:
North — Hunter Patterson, Oak Glen running back-cornerback
South — J.J. Davis, Bluefield running back-linebacker; Ethan Payne, Poca running back-defensive back
East — Jarod Bowie, Martinsburg receiver-kick returner; Blake Hartman, Musselman, slotback-safety
West — Drew Hatfield, Mingo Central receiver-DB; J.J. Roberts, Cabell Midland quarterback-DB
Central — Hunter America, Doddridge County running back-DB; Gage Michael, Fairmont Senior QB-DB; Brandon Penn, Parkersburg South QB-DB
That’s an even 10 players who will likely receive some degree of voting support, with four of them competing at the Class AAA level, five in AA and America in Class A. With the field this fragmented and voting perhaps being regionalized because of that, it can prove difficult to predict the outcome.
At least two of those players set state records this year — Poca’s Payne broke a 41-year-old mark for most points in the regular season with 276 (coming on 46 touchdowns) and Mingo Central’s Hatfield shattered four records. He had 115 receptions and 1,795 yards in the regular season and finished his career with 343 catches for 5,168 yards.
However, neither Payne’s nor Hatfield’s team made it to the playoff semifinals this season, with both the Dots and Miners eliminated in last week’s Class AA quarterfinals (as was Musselman in AAA). That goes against recent Kennedy Award history, as only once since 1989 has a player captured the honor without his team getting to at least the state’s final four in his respective class (Bluefield quarterback Will Cole in 2008, whose team lost in the AA quarterfinals).
In another trend, Class AA players are starting to gain equal footing with their Class AAA counterparts when it comes to Kennedy Award attention. Since Jordan Roberts of Class AA Scott took the honor in 2007, six of the most recent 12 Kennedy winners have come from double-A programs, including the last three — Jeremy Dillon (Mingo Central 2016), Mookie Collier (Bluefield 2017) and Connor Neal (Fairmont Senior 2018).
In the previous 14 seasons, there was only one winner from a non-AAA school — Quincy Wilson of AA Weir, who shared the honor in 1998 with J.R. House of then-Class AAA Nitro, as both led their teams to state championships.
One of the common thoughts for that tendency is that there are currently more Class AA schools (44) in the state than AAA (29), so more WVSWA members are covering smaller schools than larger ones, and they vote for what they’ve seen regularly in their own corner of the state. (The last Class A athlete to take the Kennedy was Sistersville’s Jeff Swisher in 1986).
Listed alphabetically, here are those 10 players and their qualifications as the Kennedy voting comes down to the wire:
America: Led the Bulldogs back into the final four in Class A, rushing for 1,986 yards and 22 touchdowns on 258 carries, averaging 7.7 yards per carry. For his career, he’s run for 5,821 yards and 73 TDs.
Bowie: Dynamic and productive as both a receiver and kick returner. Fourteen of his 38 catches have gone for TDs and he averages 24.8 yards per reception. Half of his 12 punt returns have also gone the distance for scores, and he averages a whopping 44.2 yards per runback.
Davis: Averages nearly 12 yards per carry, with 141 attempts for 1,687 yards and 25 touchdowns. Also dangerous as a receiver, with 10 catches for 280 yards and two more scores.
Hartman: Didn’t play because of an injury in last week’s quarterfinal loss, but his numbers are outstanding — 2,109 yards and 29 TDs rushing, 27 catches for 506 yards and six scores, 37 total touchdowns, two TD passes and 79 tackles (second on the team) with seven sacks.
Hatfield: Finished his 12-game season with 124 receptions for 1,870 yards and 20 touchdowns, and a top game of 21 catches for 249 yards and two scores against Nitro. Ranks fourth nationally with 343 career receptions.
Michael: Taking over for the previous year’s Kennedy winner in Neal, the Polar Bears’ offense hasn’t missed a beat. He’s thrown for 2,162 yards and 25 touchdowns (57.3 completion percentage, just six interceptions) and run for 1,381 yards and 21 TDs.
Patterson: Does a little of everything for the Golden Bears (12-0), who are in the semifinals for the first time. Leads the team in rushing (1,239 yards, 16 TDs) and receiving (45 catches, 829 yards, nine TDs), has broken up 12 passes and returned a kickoff 87 yards for a score against Poca last week.
Payne: Was on his way to a breakout season last year before a hip avulsion fracture sidelined him for the final month of the regular season. Rebounded this year to run for 2,545 yards and 49 touchdowns, catch 10 passes for 188 yards and two scores and return a kickoff for a TD.
Penn: Another two-way AAA standout who has his team in the semifinals for the first time since 2003. Has thrown for 2,173 yards and 25 TDs and leads team in rushing with 1,624 yards and 19 TDs. Also tops the Patriots defense with 135 total tackles, has picked off nine passes and recovered four fumbles.
Roberts: Has already committed to Wake Forest as a defensive back, but took over full-time quarterbacking duties this season for the unbeaten Knights (12-0). Directs an option-based offense that averages just over 400 yards on the ground per game, and has rushed for 1,304 yards and leads team with 23 TD runs.