Diving deep on record seasons for Keith, Byrd

  • Greenfield senior RJ Byrd eyes a running lane on Thanksgiving in his team’s 40-38 win over Turners Falls. Byrd became one of just three players in Franklin County history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season this fall. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Turners Falls' Wyatt Keith fights off a tackle from Greenfield’s RJ Byrd on Thanksgiving. The duo are now the top two rushers in Franklin County history after toppling the 2,000 yard mark this fall. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Turners Falls' Wyatt Keith rips off some of his Franklin County single-season record-breaking 2,355 yards on Thanksgiving. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greenfield's RJ Byrd closed his standout career with 2,092 yards rushing this fall, giving him 4,768 for his career. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greenfield's RJ Byrd broke the school record with 2,092 rushing yards this season, and finished his standout career with 4,768 yards on the ground — third-most in Franklin County all-time. Staff Photo/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 11/27/2018 7:59:16 PM

In many ways, 2018 was an historic season for Franklin County high school football. That was especially the case for a pair of area runners who inserted themselves into the record books thanks to stellar seasons on the ground.

At the end of it all, Turners’ Wyatt Keith and Greenfield’s RJ Byrd closed their standout gridiron careers with exclamation marks. On a chilly Thanksgiving morning, the duo both eclipsed 300 yards rushing in the Green Wave’s 40-38 victory that set a record for most combined points ever in the rivalry.

Keith scampered for 346 yards, just one yard shy of Byrd’s single-game record of 347 set earlier this season against Athol. Byrd totaled 301 yards to help Greenfield win back-to-back turkey day outings. The pair’s performance is believed to be the first-ever game in Franklin County history with two 300-yard rushers.

With all the crazy numbers put up by both players this season, we needed a full story to break it all down. So let’s take a deeper dive into what transpired on the field for both players.

Wyatt Keith

Northfield to Turners

It started innocuously enough for Keith.

The Pioneer Valley Regional School star joined several of his schoolmates in making the move to the new co-operative program with Turners Falls in August preseason camp. After the Panthers were unable to field a team, Keith became the crown jewel of the newcomers on a Turners team with big aspirations.

But the hulking back was still relatively new to the running back position. He only became the featured back at Pioneer midway through the 2017 season, though he quickly became a force on the ground. He amassed 1,102 yards during his junior campaign, going over the 1,000-yard mark on Thanksgiving against Franklin Tech. He was the leading scorer in Franklin County with 141 points.

New team

Fast-forward to the beginning of this season, and Keith immediately jumped into his role as featured back for the Thunder.

His presence filled a bit of a hole for Turners, as the team suffered through injuries at the running back position last year and coveted that every-down kind of player.

In the team’s first game of the season, Keith ran for 111 yards in a 21-7 loss to a Lee team that wound up reaching the WMass Division 8 title game. He bounced back with back-to-back 200-plus games the next two weeks, gaining 231 yards against Athol and 250 yards in the team’s first of two meetings with Greenfield.

As the numbers piled up, so too, did the number of carries. The team’s workhorse, who led the area in rushing attempts by a substantial margin this season, ripped off 30-plus carries five times in a six-game span during the middle portion of the season. He broke the 1,000-yard plateau for the second season in a row during Turners’ 35-28 overtime victory over Frontier, when he amassed 226 yards and three touchdowns on 37 carries.

Down the stretch

With 2,000 yards in sight, Keith saved his biggest totals for the stretch run.

After a season-low total of 107 yards in the team’s WMass semifinal loss to Hoosac, Keith turned it up in the Thunder’s final two games. Against Mount Greylock on Nov. 9, he ripped off a 316-yard performance to help Turners cruise to a 56-6 road victory. That outing put him over the 2,000-yard mark, becoming just the second player in Franklin County history to accomplish the feat after Turners’ Ryan Wilder did it in 2012.

What did he have for an encore on Thanksgiving? Just a little 38-carry, 346-yard and four touchdown showing in a game for the ages against the Green Wave.

Final numbers

Keith finished his lone season with the Turners Falls program as Franklin County’s all-time single-season rushing leader. He finished with 2,355 yards to go with 26 touchdowns in 2018, breaking Wilder’s yardage mark of 2,015 yards. He also broke the record for most 200-plus yard rushing games in a season with seven, and he had a pair of 300-plus games to close things out. All that equated to a 7.29 yard per carry average, finishing with a whopping 323 carries in 11 games.

For his career, Keith is now the eighth-ranked rusher in Franklin County with 3,456 yards. He ripped off 44 touchdowns on the ground during his two-year career as a ball carrier.

RJ Byrd

Expectations sky-high

It was a preseason full of big expectations for the Greenfield senior tailback.

After rushing for 1,578 yards as a junior, Byrd entered this fall with a legitimate chance at the 2,000-mark.

And with Byrd back, along with senior quarterback Owen Phelps and standout wide receiver Danny Vega, all systems were go for a potential special season at Vets Field.

Weeks 1 & 2

Things got off to a promising start.

Byrd’s opening game was a 202-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 26-18 win over Woodstock Academy (Conn.). He followed that with 161 yards on the ground in a 25-22 loss to Frontier, though the pace through two weeks had him in fine shape for the 2K mark.

Turners setback

It nearly all came to a crashing halt in Week 3.

Greenfield’s season took a detour with a 35-8 thumping at the hands of Turners. Byrd had the worst game of his season, and third-lowest total of his rushing career with just 20 yards on 15 carries. With a tough performance, it appeared as though Byrd’s pursuit of the 2,000-yard mark was just about over.

Climbing back

It began with a slight crescendo trending upward.

Byrd ran for 151 yards against Franklin Tech, then 211 against Easthampton. He followed that with a dominant 271-yard showing against Mahar, helping the Green Wave to its third win in a row. The outing against the Senators got him over the 1,000-yard clip for the third year in a row, and he sat with 1,016 yards through six games.

Then came his record-breaking night against Athol.

Byrd exploded in a shootout against the Red Raiders, breaking free for 347 yards and five scores on 39 carries in Greenfield’s 44-36 win. Looking back on the season, it was that performance that ultimately got him back in the running for a shot at 2,000. It set the record for most yards in a single game by a Franklin County rusher.

Rest of the way

Byrd needed that 347-yard outing in a big way, especially because the next two weeks he was held well below his average in losses to Belchertown (105 yards) and Putnam (60).

With just two games left, he had 1,528 yards and needed big games against McCann Tech and Turners to become the first GHS player to accomplish the 2K feat.

It started with a monster effort in miserable conditions in North Adams against McCann on Nov. 10. Byrd ran for 263 yards and four touchdowns on just 13 carries as the Wave rolled past the Hornets, 38-22.

But after amassing just 20 yards in the first meeting with Turners, Byrd needed things to change dramatically on turkey day. He entered last week’s game with 1,791 yards, meaning a 209-yard performance would be needed to join Keith in the 2,000 club.

The first half set the tone, as Byrd posted several lengthy runs to get within striking distance. His 58-yard touchdown on the first play of the third quarter got him close, and he made no doubt about it later in the frame with a 91-yard TD scamper. All told, he finished with 301 yards, giving him 2,092 yards for the season to become just the third player in Franklin County to accomplish the feat along with Keith and Wilder.

Numbers never lie

The statistics speak volumes about Byrd’s time in Greenfield.

His senior total of 2,092 yards puts him second on the single-season list behind only Keith. He had six 200-yard rushing games and two 300-yard outings his final season, amassing an 8.6 yard per carry average in the process.

For his career, Byrd’s total of 4,768 yards has him third on the all-time list in Franklin County. Mahar’s Isaiah Jones, who graduated in 2011, set the high water mark with 5,208 yards, while Mohawk’s Matt Zalenski is just ahead of Byrd for second place all-time with 4,782 yards.

Byrd finished his career as the top rusher in Greenfield High School history, surpassing Sean Boyle’s mark of 3,674 yards set in 2007. Peter Bergeron is third on the GHS all-time list with 3,189 yards.

Byrd had 22 games of 100 or more rushing yards in his varsity career, and 11 games of 200 or more yards. He scored 52 touchdowns on the ground, including 24 this season that helped him win the scoring title with 172 points.

That number was sixth-best in Franklin County history. Mahar’s Jason Aguda is the top single-season point-scorer in F.C. history, as he amassed 230 points in 1996.

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