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Ethan Payne nabs top honor

Poca’s RB wins Kennedy Award

Photo by Chris Dorst Poca runningback Ethan Payne was named the winner of the Kennedy Award as the top player in the state. The junior running back finished the season with 2,845 yards and 49 touchdowns on the ground.

CHARLESTON – A scant three years ago, Poca football was at its lowest point.

The proud program, which had captured a then-record three straight Class AA state championships under former coach Bob Lemley from 2001-03, was mired in a losing streak that eventually reached a staggering 39 games, second-longest in state history.

The Dots seemed so far from relevance that it was fair to wonder if they’d ever bounce back. Well, all it took was one special class of athletes, led by one exceptional running back.

Junior tailback Ethan Payne broke a 41-year-old state scoring record and just missed another mark this past season, piling up yards and touchdowns in astonishing bunches while helping Poca regain its status as a Class AA power. For those efforts, he’s been named the winner of the 2019 Kennedy Award, given to the state’s top high school player by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.

Brandon Penn, the quarterback-defensive back who led Parkersburg South to the Class AAA semifinals, finished a close second to Payne in the Kennedy voting, with Martinsburg receiver Jarod Bowie right behind in third. Running backs Blake Hartman (Musselman) and Hunter America (Doddridge County) rounded out the top five.

The 6-foot-1, 212-pound Payne finished the season with 2,845 yards and 49 touchdowns on the ground, averaging more than 13 yards per carry and 237 yards per game. In the regular season, he scored 46 touchdowns for 276 points, breaking the former state record of 263 regular-season points set by Pineville’s Curt Warner in 1978. Warner went on to become an All-American at Penn State and an All-Pro for the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL.

Just as remarkable as Payne’s performances on the field was the complete culture change he helped bring about at Poca. From 2004-17, the Dots went 36-106, posting losing records 12 times in 14 seasons, with three straight 0-10 finishes from 2014-16.

However, a buzz started building around Payne during his days at Poca Middle School, as he and his classmates started racking up victory after victory, with Payne’s strong running laying the groundwork for the team’s success. Those Dots (same nickname as the high school) lost only one game when Payne was in middle school.

In some areas of West Virginia, a player with such promise might be tempted to transfer to a neighboring high school where the football fortunes were a little brighter. Not for Payne, though. He remained a loyal Dot through and through.

“There was no doubt,” Payne said. “I wasn’t leaving. I was going nowhere. First of all, my dad wouldn’t let me go anywhere. But I wanted to come up here and change things around — our class and the class above us.”

Seth Ramsey, who took over as Poca’s coach in 2015, was on the ground floor of the program’s extreme makeover.

“When you’re going through that thing,” Ramsey said of the long losing streak, “you knew help was on the way. That junior class we have now is really special — Ethan and Jay [Cook], Dillon Taylor and Landon Easter. We knew help was coming because those guys had never lost in midget ball, pee-wee league, middle school ball. A lot of them played AAU ball.

“We can talk all you want about culture and changing things and buying into things, but you’ve got to have players, and they completely changed the trajectory of this program, and the way people look at us and think about us.”

Payne felt that the program reached a crossroads in his sophomore year of 2018 when the Dots finally beat Mingo Central 45-27. The Miners, who won a Class AA title in 2016 and reached the playoff semifinals in 2017, had whipped Poca by an average of 50 points the previous five seasons.

“That’s when we knew we were pretty good,” Payne said. “We were the real deal, and that was the turning point for the program, I think.”

Payne wasn’t able to finish his sophomore season in full health, as a hip avulsion fracture led to him missing the final month of the regular season and he was limited during the Dots’ first-round playoff loss to Weir. But he made up for lost time this year, bursting out of the gates with four straight 200-plus-yard games and 19 total touchdowns.

Before the season was over, Payne and the Dots were checking off a lot of mileposts. They went 10-0 in the regular season for the first time since 1978, earning the No. 3 playoff seed, captured their first Cardinal Conference title since 2006 and beat North Marion 42-27 in the first round of the postseason, their first playoff win in 13 years.

Payne piled up his rushing yardage despite getting only about 17 carries a game. He finished his 12-game season with 52 overall touchdowns, including two scoring receptions and a kickoff return for a TD. He fell just short of the state all-games record of 54 touchdowns set by Morgantown’s Spencer Farley in 14 games during the 2004 season.

“I haven’t been around a kid who maximizes his opportunities with the chances he gets,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey also marvels at how the 17-year-old Payne handles himself off the field. He carries a 3.5 grade-point average, is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Bible Club and should join the National Honor Society next year.

“When you talk about scholastic sports and student-athletes, he’s your guy,” Ramsey said. “He’s what you want as a student-athlete. Not just in football and baseball and basketball, but he runs track. He’s fully involved in the high school experience, and he’s just so amazing. He devotes time to so many different things. It’s admirable.”

As far as college contacts, Payne recently took his second visit to West Virginia’s campus and has also visited Cincinnati, Marshall and Penn State.

Payne will be recognized for winning the Kennedy and Warner Awards during the 74th Victory Awards Dinner May 3 at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.

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