GALLIPOLIS, Ohio — They committed themselves to being excellent. Now a half-dozen Raiders have other commitments to fulfill.
The River Valley football program had a season for the ages in 2015 after posting a 7-4 record while earning the school’s first-ever playoff appearance, which ended up being a 34-0 loss in the opening round of the Division V, Region 17 postseason at Zane Trace High School.
Despite the final outcome of that Week 11 evening in Ross County, the Raiders accomplished so much in just getting to that point. RVHS had never won more than six games in any of its previous 23 seasons of football, nor had it earned a winning record since the 2003 campaign — a span of a dozen years, with 11 of those resulting in losing records.
Before Jerrod Sparling was hired as head coach at River Valley in 2011, the Raider program had won just 10 games in its previous seven seasons. Sparling mustered half of that win total in his first three campaigns on the sideline, then came the 2014 season in which the Silver and Black ended an 11-year run with losing records after finishing 5-5 overall.
Then came the historic 2015 campaign, a year in which River Valley posted three shutouts while surrendering only 12 points per game throughout the regular season. In retrospect, the Raiders’ previous three shutouts before last fall go back to the 2002 campaign.
So, the question is, how as a first-time coach do you convince a group of young men to change the culture and the results within a program that has traditionally shown that it can’t be successful?
The answer was simple enough, even though the process was anything but easy.
“I can remember when I was first hired as the head coach at River Valley, I was at an assembly at the middle school and spoke to some of the younger kids about buying in and committing to becoming better football players,” Sparling said. “It was, to a large degree, a leap of blind faith on their part, asking them to trust someone that they were just meeting to make them better football players. I can also tell you that six of the young men I remember talking to that day are sitting here right now, signing off on college offers to continue their football careers.
“They did everything it took to make our program better during their time here and now they have another opportunity to play at the next level. That is what makes what we are doing today so special, knowing that each of them has been rewarded for all of that hard work.”
That hard work, as Sparling eluded to, allowed RVHS to finish in a three-way tie for second place in the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division with both Meigs and Athens in 2015. It also resulted in four All-Ohio selections by the Associated Press in Division V, the most ever for the Raiders in any one season of football.
Those four All-Ohio selections went to Justin Arrowood, Dayton Hardway, Kirk Morrow and Mark Wray — all of whom were signing on this Saturday, May 7, date at Courtside Bar and Grill. Mike Williams and Josiah Johnson were the other key pieces from the RVHS squad to join a college football program at the event.
Both Hardway and Williams agreed to join Baldwin-Wallace College, while Wray and Morrow each agreed to join forces at Ohio Dominican University. Johnson is taking his talents to Wilmington College, while Arrowood is headed to Muskingum University.
While staying involved with helping each player get the best offer possible, Sparling noted that he heard positive things about each of his half-dozen pupils. He also believes that having been part of the River Valley football program transformation, each of these young men is well-prepared for what awaits them in the upcoming months and years.
“We’ve had some good feedback from each of the coaches that recruited them, mainly that these kids already know how to work and what we are going to be teaching them,” Sparling said. “As coaches, that is a satisfying thing to hear. For these kids, however, it just means that they are prepared for what they will see over the next four or five years.
“These six aren’t afraid of hard work and each of them knows where hard work can take them, so that may already give them a little bit of an edge on most other kids coming into college. Now it’s up to them to continue their different paths, but they will always serve as an inspiration to future football teams here at River Valley.”
Here’s a brief look at each of the six signees, which will include some basic information about the player along with their respective thoughts on their time in high school.
The 5-foot-10, 215-pound linebacker recorded 102 tackles and had two sacks during his senior season, helping to earn All-Ohio honors in Division V. The son of Anthony and Tracy Arrowood, Justin is headed to Muskingum University.
“Football is the only sport I played at River Valley in my career and I’ve made memories that I will never forget. I would not be the player that I am today if weren’t for the coaching staff at River Valley,” Arrowood said. “I will always be proud of being part of the first team in River Valley history to make the playoffs, and I am very much looking forward to next challenge ahead.”
The 6-foot-1, 275-pound lineman was one of the Raiders’ most reliable interior lineman on both sides of the ball. The son of Robbie Canady and Jennifer Truance, Josiah is headed to Wilmington College.
“Besides being part of the first team to make the playoffs at River Valley, I’m most proud of seeing how our early losses taught us how to win over the years. There are a lot of memories between those times that can never be replaced,” Johnson said. “I committed to Wilmington because I personally felt it was a good, down to earth place where I could fit in and prosper while trying to obtain my degree in physical therapy.”
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive end recorded 59 tackles and nine sacks, including a team-best 16 tackles for loss. The son of Kent and Kathy Williams, Michael is headed to Baldwin Wallace College.
“We have the best record in school history and the first playoff appearance, but the thing I’m most proud of during my time at River Valley is that we could call ourselves a family. The staff put a lot of time in with us, rather it be in the weight room or during film sessions, to make sure we could be at our absolute best,” Williams said. “I chose Baldwin Wallace because it felt like home. I feel like it was the best opportunity for me and that they will make me into the best player and person I can be, much like the staff here at River Valley has done for me.”
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound quarterback owns numerous school records as a four-year starter under center, including the game, season and career records for completions, yards passing and touchdowns. Dayton — the son of Marc and Kay Hardway — is headed to Baldwin Wallace after earning Division V All-Ohio honors his senior year.
“I chose BW because they offer a great education and it is one of the few schools in Ohio that offer a degree in Neuroscience. I’m hoping that degree will prepare me for my future goal of entering medical school and becoming a surgeon, plus they have a long history of having a successful football program,” Hardway said. “I have had the privilege of wearing the Silver and Black going back to youth league, and many of my teammates have been together with me during that entire time. All we ever wanted was to be the best we could be and gain some respect for our program. I believe we all met that goal.”
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound runningback/linebacker was a Division V All-Ohio performer for an overall body of work that included 556 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 128 carries, 23 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns, two kickoff returns for scores, three 30-plus yard field goals and 93 tackles to go along with an interception. The son of Mark and Wanda Wray is headed to Ohio Dominican College.
“I have an amazing opportunity in front of me and I cannot wait to get to ODU and put in the work to make my way onto the playing field. They have a proven football program and I look forward to participating in another winning program like we built at River Valley,” Wray said. “I came to River Valley in eighth grade and being part of the program’s turnaround has made a giant impact on my life. We were able to change the culture at River Valley one step at a time, which is probably one of my favorite moments during my time in high school.”
The 5-foot-10, 165-pound wide receiver owns numerous school records as a four-year starter, including the most catches, receiving yards and touchdown receptions in a season and a career. Kirk — the son of Jim and Missi Morrow — is headed to Ohio Dominican after earning Division V All-Ohio honors his senior year.
“Playing at River Valley meant overcoming the odds, at least to me. We came in as part of a program that wasn’t expected to do anything year after year, but I also believe that we — as a team — changed that over our time there,” Morrow said. “ODU is a school that I was always interested in playing at, and I really like how the campus is laid out in a smaller setting. I’m very excited about this next opportunity in my life.”
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.