WHS’ Spencer named 2014 County Football Player of the Year

ASHLEY VANSANT | DAILY NEWS ON THE RUN: Washington running back Markel Spencer breaks a tackle during the state championship game. He finished with 111 yards rushing on 23 carries.

ON THE RUN: Washington running back Markel Spencer breaks a tackle during the state championship game. He finished with 111 yards rushing on 23 carries.

Four years ago, Washington head coach Sport Sawyer decided his offense needed a mid-season boost before starting a grueling Coastal Conference slate. Among others, he called upon an undersized running back from jayvee, Markel Spencer, to supplement some of the other playmakers in the pistol set.

Almost immediately, Spencer’s impact was felt, as the timid freshman was anything but reserved on the field, rushing for over 200 yards in two games. While Sawyer has been hesitant to play freshmen on varsity through the years, Spencer was offered an opportunity to regularly suit up on Fridays. However, he turned down the offer, choosing to remain on jayvee for the remainder of the year — a decision that would ultimately pay off.

Through the remainder of 2011 and the spring of 2012, Spencer gained pounds of muscle and tons of confidence, making the transition to varsity his sophomore year an easy one. Now a senior, Spencer spent his 2014 season as the primary back for Washington, leading the team to the state championship for the first time since 1956. For his performance, Spencer has been named the Washington Daily News County Football Player of the Year.

“He’s a young man that is very humble, but he loves God,” Sawyer said. “That’s the kind of guy he is. He works hard, but also he’s just a good human being and a good person.”

After strong 1,000-plus yard seasons in 2012 and 2013 running in a dual back set, paired with Stevie Green, Spencer recorded 2,152 yards rushing and 27 touchdowns on 290 carries this season, averaging 7.6 yards per carry and 136.1 yards a game.

The 5-8, 175-pound senior finished his career as Washington’s all-time leading rusher with 5,364 yards, a milestone previously held by former Pam Pack running back Travis Daniels. Spencer eclipsed that mark on Nov. 7 on the road against North Johnston with a 178-yard, first half performance.

But his final stat line doesn’t tell the true story of a season that came with its fair share of adversity. Spencer rushed for 157 yards on 21 carries in the opener against Havelock, but found the end zone just once, as a big second half from quarterback Travis Sabdo powered the Rams to a 37-6 win.

From there, Spencer had the ball in his hands about 50 percent of the plays, racking up yards in bunches and being the workhorse Sawyer needed to support a standout defense.

“As far as the speed he gets, once he gets to the next level, you’re not going to tackle him,” Sawyer said. “He has that burst that’s pretty amazing and it will be missed. The way he hit the holes and stayed with his blocking, it was very good.”

By the time Eastern Plains Conference play came around on Oct. 10, Spencer had already amassed 727 yards and nine touchdowns, leading up to a showdown in Farmville between two foes ranked in the Associated Press top-10 poll. In a moment that came to define Washington’s season and Spencer’s career, the Pam Pack had the ball on its own 11-yard line down six points with under a minute left in the fourth quarter. With a five-game win streak on the line, Spencer burst through a hole and sprinted 89 yards up the sideline to hand Washington its most unlikely of victories.

Against Southwest Edgecombe the following week, tough defensive play from the front seven and a 188-yard performance from Spencer lifted Washington to another competitive, one-score win. But Spencer’s biggest game of the season came against Beddingfield on Nov. 24, where he rushed for a season-high 234 yards on 21 carries.

The Pam Pack went on to win the next six games, posting three shutouts and four playoff victories. However, in a game against North Pitt on Nov. 14, Spencer stepped on an opposing lineman’s foot and awkwardly twisted his ankle, sidelining him for the rest of the game and most of the second round game against Kinston. But against Roanoke Rapids in the third round, he responded with 169 yards on 13 carries.

“The more the season went along, the harder he ran,” Sawyer said. “Every play, even in the championship game, I truly believed with the ball in his hands he could have gone 99 yards, just like at Farmville Central.”

With the ball on its own one-yard line and under a minute left in the state championship against East Lincoln, Sawyer gave the ball to the only person worthy of holding it with the game on the line. The Pam Pack never found the end zone and fell, 14-13, but Spencer finished with a game-high 111 yards on 23 carries to end his high school career.

As for his post-high school plans, Spencer hopes to play football at the collegiate level and has received interest from a collection of Division III schools.

“He’s small and a lot of times colleges do the eyeball test, so to speak … I see him definitely playing college football, it’s just a matter of where,” Sawyer said. “Speed kills and he’s got it.”