CHARLESTON - The 2013 West Virginia high school football season produced a wealth of impressive defensive linemen, as defensive fronts overshadowed linebacking corps from coalfields to the panhandles.
Class AAA state championship game contestants Martinsburg and Huntington were led by dominating fronts from end to end, but it was a standout for a big-school semifinalist who caught the attention of the West Virginia Sports Writers Association and refused to let go.
The WVSWA chose Capital senior defensive end James Walton (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) as the winner of the Hunt Award, given annually by the organization to the state's best interior lineman. Walton, who also played defensive tackle and center, helped lead the Cougars to an 11-2 record and their first appearance in the playoff semifinals since 1999.
"It feels real good to be in that group of players," Walton said of Hunt Award finalists Nigale Cabell of Huntington, Amanii Brown of Morgantown, Tony Richardson of University and Cody Ballengee of Cabell Midland.
Walton won the award by narrowly edging out Cabell, who finished second. The two are familiar with each other in more than their battles on the football field, Walton said.
"Actually, my battles with him started in middle school wrestling," Walton said.
"Our record probably ended up tied against each other. He's just a great player. He's big and quick for his size. He did a lot of damage when he played us. He plays inside, though, and I play outside, really, so we do different things."
Capital lost to Huntington 21-10 in the regular season. The Cougars' other loss came in the semifinals at Martinsburg by a 35-21 final score. Walton said the priorities and personality of the Capital program have changed dramatically since his freshman season of 2010. He credited the changes in the last four years for the team's success as well as his individual honors.
"I know when I first got there nobody really lifted weights. Keion Wright and J.C. Morrison and those guys did, but they kind of worked out on their own," Walton said.
Wright is Capital's all-time rushing leader and Morrison was the runner-up for the 2010 Huff Award, given to the state's top defensive player.
"They did their thing, but there was never a team or family concept to it," Walton said. "We really built that into the program. To be honest, I'm looking to see (sophomore offensive lineman) Savion Brown to take over as the leader along that line after I'm gone. This year I tried to bring him along to become a leader for next year."
Capital opened in 1989 as a consolidation of Charleston and Stonewall Jackson high schools. However, it was not until 2013 that the Cougars were able to lift weights in their own facility at University of Charleston Stadium, their home field. It was after a first-round playoff loss in 2012 that Walton and his team increased their push to become more physical.
Capital gave up an average of three rushing yards per carry and 4.8 yards per pass attempt in 2013. Walton was the team's leading tackler, averaging more than nine stops per game. He also led the Cougars in sacks and tackles for loss.
Walton said he has not chosen his college destination, but is being recruited by Virginia Military Institute and Morehead State as well as a host of Mountain East Conference schools. He will be honored at the Victory Awards Dinner hosted by the WVSWA in May.