Seth Dalton expects to be “pumped up” taking Eagle Field tonight.
That’s a normal and expected feeling for the Class 4A state semifinals. But Dalton didn’t anticipate what he felt 15 months earlier, on the same green patch of carpet in Paintsville.
That night, on Aug. 24, 2018, most people at Johnson Central as kickoff of a new football season approached expressed excitement, with an edge.
The Golden Eagles, after all, were preparing to begin the journey to try to earn their fourth consecutive trip to the state championship game.
Dalton, forced from uniform by a surgically repaired torn AC joint in his shoulder, incurred in what coach Jim Matney termed a “freak accident,” already knew he’d have to watch and wait, but he didn’t expect quite what he felt as his teammates gathered near the north end zone.
“I didn’t feel like (sitting out) was gonna be that hard until the first game,” Dalton recalled. “And they ran out and I was standing on the sideline, and it was terrible.”
Dalton hasn’t forgotten that feeling. The result: 10 touchdown receptions and 616 yards receiving — a crucial component to open up opportunities for Johnson Central’s ground-and-pound offense, and take advantage when opponents sell out to stop it.
“He’s worked very hard to get back to where he’s at,” Matney said. “That’s kind of the life of a high school football player. You have to be very dedicated. It doesn’t reward you financially; it’s all about the intangibles it brings to your life, and he’s a perfect example of a young man that’s worked hard to get back on the right track.”
Johnson Central’s leading receiving threat missed all last season recovering from the torn AC joint — a non-contact injury he sustained on the first day of practice for his junior season.
“We weren’t doing anything,” Matney remembered. “We were just running; we were just timing them in the 40(-yard dash). ... It obviously hurt us tremendously. He’s always a threat. The other kids picked up the slack, but we’re certainly glad to have him back and have him healthy this year.”
That required Dalton’s fanatical dedication to getting back onto the field. He began therapy immediately after the removal of the stitches two weeks after surgery, Dalton said, and began lifting weights again at the four-month mark. Dalton was released to return six months after surgery, he said.
“And this offseason,” Dalton said, “I was in the weight room every day lifting.”
Dalton has matched the TD production from his breakout sophomore season — which Dalton capped with two scoring receptions and 111 yards through the air in the Golden Eagles’ 35-21 loss to Franklin-Simpson in the state final.
“He seemingly just picked back up where he left off,” Matney said.
The chemistry was still there, too, with quarterback Ryley Preece. Preece has passed for 1,133 yards and 17 touchdowns — the bulk of both totals in Dalton’s direction.
That has only served to make Johnson Central’s rushing game — accumulator of 3,734 yards and 59 touchdowns this season — more potent.
“We take a lot of pride in our running game, but we’ve always thrown it whenever I felt like we were able to,” Matney said, “and throughout the years we’ve had some huge, huge games decided on a pass play. It’s always there in our arsenal; just, sometimes we try to use it more than others.
“And with Seth, you have a good player like that, that encourages you to use it a little more.”
Or, as Dalton put it: “I feel like (opponents) have to respect the pass game more, they loosen up a little more to respect it, and they have to do that, or we can throw it everywhere.”
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