Perhaps no topic in West Virginia high school sports annually stirs debate like the Kennedy Award.
It’s given to the top high school football player in West Virginia each year, so you can think of it as our version of what many states call “Mr. Football” or something similar.
We just put Week 8 to bed, which means there are seven more prep football weekends until state champions are crowned in Wheeling. The West Virginia Sports Writers Association members vote on the Kennedy each year, with every ballot containing, in order, three names. Keep in mind — that’s every member. Newspapers with larger staffs like the ones in Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling and Beckley (among a few others) make up a big chunk of the votes — and a lot of us talk. It certainly helps when a player is putting up video game numbers, but doing so in front of or in ear shot of as many voters as possible goes a long way.
As does a deep run in the playoffs.
The award isn’t announced until several weeks after the season, but by the time the Class AA title game kicks off on Friday night we know the winner. With ballots due between the semifinal round and state championship games, there are six weeks of football remaining for the candidates to state their case for the state’s top high school football honor. Using recent history, being on a team that is still practicing during the week of Thanksgiving is almost a must.
Competition matters. Right or wrong, that makes it very tough for Class A players to win the award. Is it impossible? No. Do most of the winners come from Class AAA? They do. Reigning winner Jeremy Dillion from Mingo Central is a somewhat rare winner from AA. It’s hard to win it as a AA player, but Class A guys really have the deck stacked against them.
It’s also VERY tough to win the award if you’re not a quarterback or running back. Receivers get some love occasionally, but it’s rare to see many crack the top three from other positions. It’s not often, but sometimes you get voters like me who put offensive lineman on their ballot. My 2016 ballot:
1. Riley Locklear, Spring Valley (now an offensive lineman at Tennessee)
2. Jeremy Dillon, Mingo Central (the eventual winner)
3. Jake Abbott, Fairmont Senior (on the roster at WVU)
This season’s crop of potential candidates is DEEP. Really, really, really deep. Here are some names to keep an eye on (in no order):
Jeremy Dillon, QB, Mingo Central
The Miners’ main man is putting up silly numbers again this season as Mingo Central remains unbeaten in its AA state title defense. He checks off a bunch of the boxes — name recognition, stats, potential semifinal team among them — but unlike last year there is a deep pool of qualified candidates from AAA schools which muddies things a bit for Dillon. He’ll be in the mix, but a repeat will be a tall mountain to climb. He is VERY good.
Tyson Bagent, QB, Martinsburg
The key piece in the Bulldogs’ offense for years is now a senior and leading his team in pursuit of consecutive unbeaten AAA state titles. He’ll have the numbers and the wins. His name is going to appear on a lot of ballots, but which place is still up in the air with the depth of other candidates.
Jadon Hayes, RB, Huntington
This guy has really burst onto the scene this season as the Highlanders have mowed through the Mountain State Athletic Conference so far. Every week seems to produce another highlight run, several hundred yards and a few touchdowns. He’s also a key member of the Huntington secondary as a defensive back and is probably the best kick returner in the state. If we had to vote today, I think Hayes would be the winner. We don’t, so he’ll have to keep it up to fight off the competition a while longer.
Mookie Collier, RB, Bluefield
A lot of people I spoke to were taking a wait and see approach on Bluefield this year. The Beavers have been pounding everyone and Collier is right in the middle of that. Like a few other candidates he should have the stats and a team that could go deep, but he’ll need to do something special in the coming weeks find his way on to some ballots.
Kerry Martin Jr., QB, Capital
As strong as the Capital football program has been through the years, the Cougars didn’t have a Kennedy Award winner until Kashuan Haley got one in 2014. TyRhee Pratt won it the following season to double Capital’s count. Kerry Martin was a freshman that season, and almost since the day he stepped on campus there were (often not so quiet) whispers that he was the next great one for Capital. That’s a high bar to meet, but he’s really found himself as a quarterback during his junior season. He’ll have strong numbers and a team with semifinal potential (the Cougars have been among the AAA final four each of the last four seasons), but he might be a year away. If Martin isn’t the state’s best player — and he is among that group for sure — he almost certainly is the state’s most improved player. If the Cougars make a run, he will be on some ballots.
That’s the group of guys, as of now, I expect to show up on the majority of ballots. Certainly there are other names — guys like South Harrison running back Freddy Canary, Cabell Midland running back Ivan Vaughn or University receiver Amir Richardson — that will get on a few or even quite a few voters’ lists. That’s a whole bunch of really good players with a whole bunch of football remaining. It’s going to be a fun month and a half.