If an award existed for “Most Improved Jefferson County Public School Football Program” this season, Valley and Waggener would be the finalists.
They’ll decide who’s better Friday night.
Valley (6-3) will host Waggener (5-4) at 7:30 p.m. in a game not many fans had circled on their calendars in August. After all, the Vikings and Wildcats were a combined 1-20 last season.
But both programs have added talent under new coaches and clinched playoff spots in their respective classes.
“I feel like we’ve progressed the way I hoped we would have,” said first-year Waggener coach Jordan Johnson, a former defensive coordinator at Manual. “We still let some games get away that we should have won, but I’ve been very pleased with how far we’ve come in a short amount of time.”
John Spiva is in his second year at Valley and saw his Vikings snap a 15-game losing streak early this season.
“I didn’t think we’d turn it around as fast as we did,” Spiva said. “The kids have bought into what we’re doing and put in a lot of work during the off-season. … We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we know it’s still miles ahead.”
The programs have used different methods to turn things around, with Waggener adding a slew of talented transfers and Valley developing some young players.
Waggener enters Friday’s game with a three-game winning streak and has been led by Trinity transfers and brothers Larry and Manny Harper and Manual transfers Jairus Brents and Tahj Rice.
The Harpers started this season at Trinity before transferring and joining the Waggener program for its Oct. 16 game against Thomas Nelson. Larry Harper, a junior quarterback, completed 13 of 16 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s 54-20 victory over Moore. Manny Harper, a sophomore wide receiver, had five catches for 100 yards.
“Talent-wise, of course they’re two of our better players,” Johnson said. “But what they bring to the table is much more than their skill level. They’re already leaders, and they’ve only been here four or five weeks.”
Brents is ranked among the top cornerbacks in the nation in the Class of 2018 and has displayed his versatility on offense by playing quarterback, running back and wide receiver. He’s scored 15 touchdowns (nine receiving, three rushing, two interception returns, one punt return).
Rice, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound sophomore defensive end, ranks second on the team with 48 tackles (34 solo) and has three fumble recoveries.
The transfers have helped turn around a Waggener program that averaged just 4.7 points per game last season and posted an 11-76 record from 2007-14. The Wildcats haven’t enjoyed a winning season or won a playoff game since going 10-2 in 2004.
“The majority of the support has been positive,” said Johnson, whose team will play at either Boyle County or Lexington Catholic next week in the first round of the Class 3-A playoffs. “There’s been a little negative around with us bringing new people in. People think you can’t do that at Waggener. The truth is the kids are excited and having fun, and then they have friends who want to be here.”
Valley beat Breckinridge County 50-28 last week to clinch second place in Class 4-A, District Three and will host Collins next week in a first-round playoff game.
The Vikings have clinched their first winning season since going 6-5 in 2009 and will shoot for their first playoff victory since a first-round win over LaRue County in 2008.
Valley has been led by the passing tandem of sophomore quarterback Brayden Campos (1,723 yards, 19 touchdowns) and junior wide receiver Devious Brooks (54 catches, 1,008 yards, 15 TDs). Junior Brandon Neely has rushed for more than 600 yards and nine touchdowns.
“(Brooks) spent a lot of time studying the playbook and becoming coachable,” Spiva said. “He’s become a role model for the other guys … and helped make the team a lot better as a whole.”
While many coaches limit time for key players in their regular-season finales, Spiva said the Vikings will go all out in an attempt to defeat Waggener.
“It’s like any other game, and 7-3 is a whole lot better than 6-4,” he said. “It’s homecoming and senior night, so we’ve had some distractions this week. We just want to keep them grounded and focused.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and [email protected]
GAME OF THE WEEK
* Who: Waggener (5-4) at Valley (6-3).
* When: 7:30 p.m.
* Jason’s pick: Waggener 27-20.