HUNTINGTON — The football sailed wide of the left upright.
Jonathan Aya-Ay’s disappointment was evident. His teammates remained silent.
“That’s all right,” Huntington High assistant coach Cody Carter said. “Do it again.”
The second kick of the first day of preseason practice split the uprights. As did the third. And the fourth. Aya-Ay’s confidence slowly grew.
Fast forward four months and Aya-Ay lined up for a career-long 46-yard field goal on the last play of the first half of a playoff game HHS led 9-7 over George Washington. The Patriots called time out to give Aya-Ay time to think about the kick. the 5-foot-10, 165-pound sophomore paced. The timeout expired. Aya-Ay walked toward holder Scout Arthur. GW called time out again. That time out, too, expired.
Aya-Ay approached Arthur, a senior who encouraged the young kicker. The Highlanders lined up, long snapper Maxwell Wentz delivered the ball to Arthur and Aya-Ay kicked it. Highlanders fans held their collective breath. Head coach Billy Seals leaned for a better view. Aya-Ay stood frozen. Then the ball hurtled over the cross bar and the field goal was good. Aya-Ay’s teammates leaped with joy and congratulated him with pat to the helmet and slaps to the shoulder pads. Huntington High led 12-7 and regained momentum from the resurgent Patriots in Friday’s Class AAA state quarterfinals.
“I was nervous, but confident,” Aya-Ay said. “We practice long field goals live in practice. The coaches prepare us for stressful situations. The icing shook me a little, but Scout does a good job keeping me calm and ready.”
Nervous, but confident. What a difference from the beginning of fall practice to the second round of the playoffs.
“Oh, he’s so much more confident now than he was,” Seals said of Aya-Ay. “He’s done a great job.”
Aya-Ay could be a key factor in the state semifinal game when No. 1 Huntington High (12-0) plays host to No. 5 Cabell Midland (11-1) at 7:30 p.m., Friday, at Bob Sang Field. The winner advances to the state championship game against either No. 2 Martinsburg (11-1) or No. 3 Bridgeport (12-0) at noon on Dec. 4 at Wheeling Island Stadium.
“We’ve been working hard this week to get ready,” said Aya-Ay, who kicked three extra points in the Highlanders’ 21-17 victory over the Knights on Sept. 10. “They are a good team, but we will be ready. Everyone is taking practice seriously this week.”
Aya-Ay has made nine field goals and 61 of 63 extra points this season. His kickoffs often reach the end zone or come close, becoming factors in field position.
Also a standout soccer player whose sister Sophie plays at Marshall University, said he likes the fast pace of soccer and the family atmosphere of football. Aya-Ay said he doesn’t know which sport he’ll choose if he plays in college.
That wasn’t a question in Aya-Ay’s mind before the season. Soccer was an easy favorite.
“Not many people know this, but at the beginning of the season I was sure if I would play football,” Aya-Ay said. “I met with coach (Seals) about it. I wasn’t confident about football.”
Aya-Ay said he was concerned whether he could maintain a high grade point average and play two fall sports. Seals gently reassured Aya-Ay, telling him he was smart and that the football team needed and wanted him.
“He can help us,” Seals said the day of the first fall practice. “He’s good. He can help win some games for us.”
Aya-Ay, who also enjoys tennis and basketball and said he and Sophie debate who is the better athlete in the family, said his confidence has grown.
“I’m thankful for my coaches and teammates,” Aya-Ay said, mentioning special teams coach Bob Watts and former HHS kicker Isaiah Carpenter as key members of his success.”
Anxiety on the football field was somewhat surprising for Aya-Ay. He and quarterback Gavin Lochow have performed in front a crowd before, although it’s been a while.
“Gavin and I did a pretty good break dancing routine at Geneva Kent (Elementary) in the talent show,” Aya-Ay said.
Lochow laughed at the memory.
“We used to live it up on the dance floor,” Lochow said. “It was a fun time. If there was a first-place award, we would’ve gotten it.”
Those two hope to dance again Friday night in celebration of a victory.