By Rick Ryan
W.Va. Sports Writers Association
Not much has ever seemed to come easily for TyRhee Pratt.
Not from the first day he joined the football program at Capital as a touted freshman, all the way to his final high school game earlier this month in the Super Six state finals.
But Pratt did more than persevere over that personal journey — he prospered.
For his efforts, which included that second straight trip to the Class AAA championship game, Pratt has been selected to receive the Kennedy Award as the top football player in the state.
Voting on the honor, which is done by members of the West Virginia Sports Writers Association, was one of the closest in recent years, as Pratt edged Point Pleasant running back Cody Mitchell. Receiver Elijah Bell of AAA champion Wheeling Park was a distant third.
“It’s a huge honor,’’ Pratt said. “Me and my dad talked about it all season, and I told him I’d get it for him. I wanted to go all out and leave it all out there this year. I wanted to show everyone what I can do before I go to the next level.’’
Pratt, who has accepted a scholarship offer from West Virginia University, took Capital to the brink of back-to-back Class AAA titles.
Last year, he starred alongside senior running back and 2014 Kennedy Award winner Kashuan Haley as the Cougars captured their first crown in 19 years. This season, Pratt was the guiding force all year as Capital made it back to the state finals at Wheeling Island Stadium, only to fall short in a 23-15 loss to Wheeling Park.
As a senior, he amassed more than 3,100 total yards in 13 games and accounted for 35 touchdowns (19 passing, 16 rushing) despite playing several games at far less than 100 percent health.
Pratt threw for 2,187 yards, completing 58 percent of his attempts, and ran for 918 yards. He became the focal point of the offense in the final three games after the team’s leading rusher, junior tailback Silas Nazario, suffered a high ankle sprain that left him severely limited.
“I knew I had to work a little bit harder and be more of a leader,’’ Pratt said, “and just do what I can do. I knew it was all on me, every single play. It’s my last year, and I was going to do all I could do.’’
In the playoff quarterfinals against Martinsburg, Pratt led Capital from a 10-point second-half deficit to a 35-30 victory, carrying 26 times for 195 yards and three TDs and passing for 182 yards and another score. A week later at unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Cabell Midland, Pratt did it again, running for 155 yards and three TDs and passing for 183 yards and two more scores in an emphatic 35-13 conquest.
Pratt didn’t have his best game in the finals against Park’s defense, which led the state in fewest points allowed, but rushed for 89 yards and one score and threw for 99 yards and a second TD.
A rare four-year starter in Class AAA, he finished his career with 9,931 yards of total offense and accounted for 119 TDs (77 passing, 42 rushing). His career record of 41-9 as a starting quarterback broke the Mountain State Athletic Conference mark of 39 wins set by Parkersburg’s Marc Kimes (1998-2001) and was four shy of the all-time state record of 45 by Magnolia’s Justin Fox (2007-10).
Capital coach Jon Carpenter, who gave Pratt a huge vote of confidence when he picked him over
over returning starter and junior Carrington Morris as the team’s QB to begin the 2012 season, was ecstatic that Pratt could wrap up his eventful career with the state’s highest individual football honor.
“It’s a funny thing,’’ Carpenter said. “I think me and the guys I coach with and TyRhee’s parents and grandparents pay more attention to it than he does. We’ll be more excited. He’ll be just like he is on Friday nights — he’ll smile.
“I always said the best thing about him is his personality. He doesn’t have a hunger for the spotlight. He’s one of the more unselfish kids who ever walked the Kanawha Valley, that’s for sure. I think it’s neat for somebody with that mix of character to be recognized as the best player.’’
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for Pratt, a Jamie Foxx lookalike who battled all sorts of obstacles in his four-year tenure:
In 2012, Pratt had to convince both his coaches and teammates that despite being a ballyhooed athlete coming out of Horace Mann Junior High, he deserved to start as a mere freshman over Morris.
“When the time came for the first game,’’ Carpenter recalled, “my mind was mostly made up [to start Pratt], and then Davon Tyson [a senior defensive back] came up to me and said he and the team wanted Pratt to be a captain for the first game. [Tyson] sort of ran the team, so I knew it was the right choice. All those kids saw him as a leader, and he had Davon Tyson’s vote of approval. They could tell four years ago that he’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime guys.
“We’ve got some hard-nosed kids here who believe in earning your way. They believe in toughness. They made the decision easy to go with him. They believed in him.’’
Pratt grew up a lot in his final game as a sophomore when the Cougars lost at reigning champ Martinsburg 35-21 in the playoff semifinals. He carried 25 times for 85 hard-earned yards and a TD and threw for 152 yards and a score, but knew he had to get stronger, so in the offseason he transformed his body, adding 20 pounds of muscle to better absorb the punishment.
Still, Pratt and the Cougars were battling the odds once the 2014 season began.
Martinsburg was riding a four-year run of state titles and Capital hadn’t played for one since 1996 and hadn’t won one since 1995. During the meantime, the other five AAA schools in Kanawha County all made trips to the Super Six — Nitro, Riverside, St. Albans, George Washington and South Charleston. The once-proud Capital program was getting to be afterthought.
But it all came together in a magical 2014 season as Capital went 13-0 and ran roughshod over SC in the state finals 55-15. Haley became the Cougars first-ever Kennedy winner, but Pratt was right there, too, passing for 1,964 yards and 25 TDs and rushing for 658 yards and 11 scores.
n All that glory didn’t go too far for Pratt when it came to personal honors, however. Through his first three years, he was never selected to anything higher than special mention all-state and was never part of the All-Kanawha Valley team.
Capital had so many playmakers on either side of the ball that the selfless Pratt was often overlooked when it came to individual awards. It bothered his coaches and teammates, but never seemed to rattle Pratt.
“That’s extremely rare for a kid,’’ Carpenter said. “He was unselfish to share the ball with other people and play a team game, and that’s what I’m most proud about. We haven’t tried to pad anybody’s stats to get these awards. To play in a team concept was enough for him. His unselfishness will be the thing that hangs underneath his jersey here.’’
n Pratt’s senior year proved to be his most decorated — besides the Kennedy, he was selected as the first-team all-state quarterback, the J.R. House Award winner as the state’s top quarterback and the Kanawha Valley player of the year — but it was easily his most trying, too.
With Haley departed, defenses were more geared to containing Pratt. Even worse, Carpenter said Pratt dealt with a stomach virus in three or four games this season, often throwing up at in the dressing room at halftime. Then came the topper — his late-season arm injury.
In the week following a listless loss at GW, Pratt developed a pinched nerve in the rotator cuff of his throwing arm (“overdoing it,’’ he said), and could barely raise his arm to throw. When he did try to throw, he couldn’t send it more than perhaps 10 yards.
The Cougars’ season seemed to be slipping away with a 5-2 record, and an Oct. 23 date at revitalized Spring Valley, which had won five in a row. Pratt couldn’t bear the thought of letting his team down, so he played though the pain.
In a heroic performance, Pratt ran for two touchdowns, directed traffic and completed just enough short passes (8 of 12 for 36 yards) to keep the Timberwolves honest, sparking Capital to a much-needed 21-7 win. The following week in the regular-season finale at Woodrow Wilson, Pratt’s arm was feeling a bit better and he threw for 138 yards and a touchdown, but his body was sore and for the first time in his career, he didn’t carry the ball even once in a 34-6 victory.
Pratt’s health improved for the playoff run, but Nazario’s injury thrust Pratt into the role of lead runner much of the way.
Carpenter marveled at how Pratt’s calming influence raised the level of play of his team, which after Nazario’s injury was down to freshmen Kalai Clark and Deshaun James in spot duty at running back and freshman receiver Kerry Martin running pass patterns alongside senior Miguel “Crunchy’’ Bays.
“I think that speaks volumes about what he had to do,’’ Carpenter said. “Three of the top [skill players] he had left were freshmen. I think that’s another thing he leaves behind, his legacy — veterans teaching younger kids how to work, how to prepare. It’s really neat that our kids have established that.
“I can’t imagine being a freshman and playing in a state championship game and TyRhee Pratt handing me the ball or throwing me one. He’s always been a calming influence on those younger kids. They’ve rallied behind him and played hard because he’s a leader. Jesus was the best leader of all time and he never had to yell at anybody. [Pratt] was in that mold. A lot of those kids believe in themselves because TyRhee believed in them.’’
Mitchell, meanwhile, was the linchpin for Point Pleasant’s best showing ever in Class AAA, which included a trip to the playoff semifinals and a state-record 61.3 points per game scoring average during the regular season.
A Marshall commit, Mitchell ran for 2,332 yards and scored 51 overall touchdowns, three shy of the state’s all-time record for a single season.
Rounding out the top 10 in the Kennedy voting were Bell, Dante Bonamico of Bridgeport and Savion Johnson of Wheeling Park (tied for fourth), Juwan Jones-Wright of Robert C. Byrd, Zayvion Johnson of Greenbrier East, Reese Donahue of Cabell Midland and Luke Presley of Tolsia and Devin Stapleton of Cabell Midland (tied for ninth).
Pratt will receive the honor at the 70th Victory Awards Dinner, set for May 15 at the Charleston Civic Center.