"The players have stayed focused, play hard and practice hard. We've worked hard in the off-season, and I guess that's why we're here [at No. 3].''
Hopkins thinks the difference between now and then rests in the number of players that dutifully show up at the weight room after school and then proceed to the practice field.
"For a while there, we just had about 18 to 21 players,'' Hopkins said of a few years ago. "Last year we got about 41 out, and this year it's 46. They're not all playing, but when you get some bodies out there you can find some people to work with. It makes a difference in how you coach and what you do.
"We've got some kids who have a good attitude and work in the off-season and got better. We were beating our heads against the wall there a few years ago when we had 21, 22 players. Having 46 makes a world of difference . . . and the work ethic's a big thing. Plus, we've got some kids with some skill and that makes a little difference.''
Unlike some Class A teams, who hitch their hopes to a workhorse running back and ride him all season, Valley likes to spread the wealth.
Payne, who gains nearly 10 yards a carry, only gets about 11 rushing attempts per game. But the Greyhounds still churn about more than 278 yards on the ground per game behind a stable of backs.
Quarterback Raeshawn Breckenridge (334 yards, eight TDs) averages about nine carries a game, Dante Wilkerson (367 yards, three TDs) around six and fullback Casey Stewart (182 yards, two TDs), Darius Hutchinson (116 yards, one TD) and Henry Barron-Houchins (96 yards, one TD) about four each.
"We've got several kids who can run,'' Hopkins said. "We've been blessed this year with a lot of skill people. That's probably why we've won a little bit. We try to spread it out. We've got kids who can run, catch and throw, and that makes a difference.''
Breckenridge has attempted only 55 passes this season, but averages a whopping 271/2 yards per completion, giving him a total of 687 yards and four TD tosses. His top target is Druw Bowen (14 catches, 370 yards, three TDs).
"I'm not one of these guys throwing the ball all over,'' Hopkins said. "If I don't throw a pass, I'm happy.''
Plowing ahead with the running game certainly keeps linemen like Mitchell happy. Mitchell thinks another reason for the Greyhounds' roll is their dedication to the weight room, which is the first stop for the players once the bell sounds to end the school day.
"We've gotten bigger and faster,'' Mitchell said, "and a lot of us got stronger over the year. [Lifting] helps when most people have injuries around this time of the year. Really, we work hard in the weight room and we don't really get tired because Coach keeps us conditioned.''
It's certainly been rarified air recently for the Greyhounds, and they hope to keep both their bark and their bite going for several more weekends.
"[We want] a perfect season this year,'' Payne said. "We've got to stay focused like we've been saying, and not fall back and take no teams light.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickr...@wvgazette.com.