HUNTINGTON — For three years now, Ethan Payne has been known as a big-time talent at a small school.
The 2019 Kennedy Award winner is the state’s most dominant player at Poca High School where he hopes his senior season will take flight unscathed in September for the Class AA program.
Many in Payne’s situation — a noted talent as a freshman — would have opted to seek a bigger school for more recognition.
Not Payne, though.
He wanted to stay home and build what was once a proud program into standing as one of the state’s elite once more.
“I knew what was coming up with our class,” Payne said. “I wanted to help turn around Poca’s athletics. We weren’t good for a while, but I wanted to make a change.”
Payne has done that in his time with the Dots, taking the team from the depths of a 39-game losing streak to an undefeated regular season in 2019 when he rushed for 2,845 yards and totaled 52 touchdowns.
In terms of taking a team on his back, Payne took Poca to new heights.
Now, 6-1, 210-pound running back hoping to do the same at Marshall where he committed on Sunday afternoon.
“The reason I chose Marshall is because I feel like I can go there and make a big impact right off the bat and make some noise in Conference USA,” Payne said.
Payne has been on Marshall’s radar for a while now, along with his brother Toby, who is a talented 2022 prospect.
The relationship with Marshall started with offensive line coach Greg Adkins, a Cross Lanes native who knows the Payne family well.
Payne said he and Adkins talked about the meaning of being an in-state player at the Division I level and the special opportunity he would have to impact the Herd.
For Payne, that connection and Marshall’s consistent efforts to reach out to him during the COVID-19 layoff from sports were a factor in his decision to announce on Sunday.
“I felt like I was wanted at Marshall more than anywhere else,” Payne said. “I felt like they really wanted me. That made my decision for me.”
In terms of offense, Payne feels like he’s right at home with Marshall’s system under Tim Cramsey being similar to the one the Dots incorporate in terms of zone blocking and reads.
“I feel like I just fit right in with Marshall’s offense,” Payne said.
While Payne’s 2019 season — his Kennedy Award-winning year — was one full of memories, he added that his 2018 season was just as pivotal to his growth as a future Division I football player.
During that season, Payne saw early success before an injury derailed his sophomore campaign and forced him into a rehabilitation process that was unlike any he’d ever gone through.
“My sophomore year was going good until I had the hip fracture,” Payne said. “I knew I had to bounce back to play, so I worked really hard with my hip. Last year turned into a really good year, but that (process) was important because I overcame adversity. That was good for me because I’d never had an injury growing up and I learned what it was like to go through that.”
Payne came back from the injury eager to prove himself and did so throughout the season, making 200-yard performances the norm while boasting of six games in which he scored at least five touchdowns.
Those efforts helped him shatter the state’s scoring record, previously held by Pineville’s Curt Warner — the namesakes of the Warner Award.
Fittingly, Payne also won the Warner Award last season, given to the state’s top running back each year.
The accolades of 2019 have given way to a new season in 2020 — one that is clouded with uncertainty due to the coronavirus, which has shut down sports over the last four months.
Payne is hoping to get back on the field with his teammates for his senior year, but felt it to be a blessing to solidify his future in football for after the pandemic.
“It’s definitely more stress-free now,” Payne said. “That’s why I decided so early. I feel like a lot of pressure was on me with recruitment, but Marshall felt right. It felt like home and I’m really excited.”