It seems improbable there would be back-to-back Kennedy Award winners from the same school as it’s only happened twice (Capital 2014-15 and Martinsburg 2003-04), but Independence appears to be on the cusp of breaking that mold.
It’s a worthwhile conversation to have since Kennedy Award ballots hit inboxes across the state Sunday afternoon.
The player in question this year is Judah Price, the Independence running back tasked with filling the shoes of last year’s Kennedy Award winner in Atticus Goodson.
There’s an argument to be made Price hasn’t only filled Goodson’s shoes but surpassed the bar he set. He’s topped Goodson’s single-season rushing yardage record and rushed for more touchdowns than Goodson did last year. For good measure he shattered the state record for most points in the regular season with 300, 24 more points than the previous record. Dating back to 1940, which is as far back as the WVSWA has record for single-season scoring leaders, no player in the state has scored as many points as Price in the regular season.
Even more impressive? He did it in nine games where as Ethan Payne, the previous record holder, scored his 276 points in 10 games.
To build a case for a Kennedy candidate you have to pick apart the weaknesses and enforce the strengths.
Strength of Schedule
This is probably the weakness in Price’s candidacy. Independence had a good schedule on paper prior to the season, one that featured two semifinal teams from a year ago in addition to playoff teams Shady Spring, Liberty and Nicholas County. For good measure Oak Hill, a triple-A school, was added in place of the two Class A schools dropped from the schedule.
The schedule didn’t materialize as a competitive one.
Shady, Liberty and Poca sported a combined record of 7-23 with neither team winning more than three games.
During the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl season there was a nine-game stretch where they played the Giants, Chargers, Cardinals, Panthers, Commanders, 49ers, Broncos, Cowboys and Bears, producing a 9-0 record over that span. Only one of those teams made the playoffs that year (Carolina) and five of the other eight were so bad they secured Top 10 draft picks.
All of this to say sometimes really good teams play bad teams but it doesn’t take away from their dominance or how good they project to be. Plenty of other players throughout the history of the sport in the state have played schedules much worse, yet Price’s numbers have outclassed them.
Rising to the Occasion
Building off the last point, when Independence has played playoff teams, Price has risen to the occasion. He rushed for 393 yards and seven touchdowns in two games against Bluefield, 212 yards and four touchdowns against Nicholas County and 140 yards and three touchdowns against Fairmont Senior. That’s 745 yards and 14 offensive touchdowns against playoff teams this season.
The performance against Fairmont is the one that stands out on numerous levels. For starters Independence was dominant against the program that’s become the standard in Class AA. The Polar Bears have won three of the last four state championships and have played in the title game five of the last six years. Behind Price’s efforts, the running clock was instituted in the fourth quarter of Indy’s 42-7 win against them Friday in Coal City. It was the worst margin of defeat for Fairmont since Bridgeport beat it 42-7 on Oct. 31, 2014.
But Price has another edge.
It’s not often acknowledged, but when filling out ballots most Kennedy voters look at or cite offensive production. That’s fine as it’s easily the most quantifiable. After all, there are great defensive players that won’t be in the discussion because opposing teams shy away from them. It’s easier to say “X rushed for this many yards” and make a believer out of somebody than to say “X only had so many interceptions because they didn’t throw his way” and generate that same effect.
Price and the rest of the Indy secondary fell victim to the latter during the regular season as only one defensive back in the Indy secondary intercepted a pass during the regular season. The playoffs have yielded different results. Price has intercepted three passes this postseason with two coming against Fairmont Senior. The third was returned 81 yards for a touchdown that gave Indy a 34-0 lead against Fairmont.
There are strong Kennedy candidates from around the state, though Price is the most realistic candidate at the Class A or AA level. He’s been the best player in double-A this season and hails from a team that’s proven itself with a run to the title game last year. He even gained notoriety in that title game with an interception and long touchdown run. The other realistic Kennedy candidates hail from Class AAA schools and the four legitimate contenders are still playing. Gavin Lochow (Huntington), Ezra Bagent (Martinsburg), Robert Shockey (Parkersburg South) and Jeremiah Riffle (Hurricane) are the other four players that will see their names slotted atop ballots when they return.
Bluefield’s Mookie Collier is the player I like to use as an example when it comes to Kennedy voting and the dynamics surrounding it. When Collier won the award in 2017 he did so largely with an impressive postseason showing. Jeremy Dillon (Mingo Central) and Jadon Hayes (Huntington) were strong contenders for the award up until the semifinals. Dillon threw two interceptions in a home loss to Fairmont Senior and Hayes rushed for 22 yards in a semifinal loss. Collier rushed for 294 yards against Bridgeport that weekend, winning one of the tightest Kennedy races in recent history.
Lochow, last year’s runner-up, has thrown 32 touchdown passes this season, Bagent is over 35 himself with over 2,700 passing yards, Riffle has 2,050 yards rushing and 22 total scores and Shockey has thrown for 2,434 yards with 29 touchdown passes to supplement the 1,025 yards and 13 scores he’s accumulated with his legs.
Circling back to the point about Collier, I’ve always believed the semifinal is where Kennedy Award cases are stamped. Furthering that belief is the fact Ethan Payne (2019) and Will Cole (2008) are the only two Kennedy Award winners in the last 20 years to win the award without their teams advancing past the quarterfinal.
Two of those players will be eliminated this weekend as Lochow and Huntington host Bagent and Martinsburg while Hurricane and Riffle travel to Parkersburg South.
What does this mean for Price? Despite his terrific season to this point, he needs to maintain that pace with ballots due Saturday, Nov. 26 at noon at the time of writing. That may also work in his favor as noon is 90 minutes before the Class AAA games kickoff. Price, win or lose, will have completed his semifinal game against North Marion and his numbers are superior to most of his counterparts.
Through 11 games he’s rushed for 2,117 yards and 43 touchdowns and has scored 340 points, putting him 20 away from breaking the record Albert “Big Sleepy” Glenn set 100 years ago of 359 in 1922. That combined with the three playoff interceptions and the margin of victory against Fairmont build a case that may push him over the top. The only player to break the regular season scoring record during their time and not win the Kennedy was Paul Mitchell of Stoco in 1971. Curt Warner broke Mitchell’s record in 1978 with 263 points, winning the Kennedy. Warner held the record until Payne broke it in 2019 when he won the Kennedy.
Essentially Mitchell is the only record holder to not win the award. The kicker? Stoco, where he played, consolidated with Sophia to become Independence where Price plays and 51 years later he’s hoping to avoid the same fate suffered by one of his predecessors.
I’ve always held my ballot until after the semis in an effort to get the complete picture. If you’re voting on the best player you should see them play the best competition they’re going to see and three playoff games is as good of a sample size as you’re going to get.
If I had to turn in a ballot right now I’d go Price, Lochow and Bagent. Unless the deadline is pushed back it’s likely to remain that way.
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