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November 9, 2013

Old rivalry through new eyes

FAIRMONT — Water is the source of life.

Evolutionary biologists believe microbacteria in water was the earliest life form. Space probes have been sent to Mars in search of water that may signal that life could be supported on the planet. And each year the Nile River floods, pouring thousands of gallons of water and nutrient-rich silt onto the shores of the parched deserts.

Oceans away in Fairmont, West Virginia, the Monongahela River cuts through the center of town, cutting it into two regions: East and West. This artery flows with a the life blood of a rivalry.

“No matter what sport is played, you’re going to have an East-West battle,” East Fairmont boys’ soccer coach Fred Roman said. “Some consider it the oldest rivalry in the state. Having been part of it, the tradition of that river makes a big difference in sports.”

The rivalry began in 1921, back when many of the players’ grandparents or great-grandparents were in school, presumably walking uphill both ways to get there.

It’s history remains relevant to this day.

“It's the most important game on the schedule,” Fairmont Senior coach J.L. Abbott said. “When I was hired in 2005, coach (Bob) DeLorenzo told me he didn’t care how we did all season, but there were two games we had to win. We had to beat North and we had to beat East. Period.”

As an outsider, I had heard stories about how veterans used to march through the town when the game was played on Nov. 11. Stories of 0-0 grudge matches. Even stories of a murder that took place during the game.

But I never experienced it ... until last night.

The East Fairmont Bees (and their giant inflatable mascot) were pumped up as they ran through the tunnel, greeted by a packed East-West Stadium crowd.

“What side?” The cheerleaders screamed.

“East side!” responded the boisterous student section, which included Superman and The Incredible Hulk decked out in body paint.

Shortly into the game, Fairmont Senior quarterback Austin Norman tossed a deep pass to Luke Hrapchak that slipped just through the tight end’s fingertips.

“Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!” the East Fairmont student section jeered, referencing the fact that Hrapchak transfered from East Fairmont to Fairmont Senior at the start of this season.

The remarks from East Fairmont’s student section weren’t the only low blows or cheap shots in the game. In total the referees called six personal fouls.

“I still have a lot respect for East Fairmont,” Hrapchak responded after the game. “They might not have a lot of respect for me, which doesn't bother me.”

As the game wore on, Fairmont Senior pulled away thanks in large part to Hrapchak’s 167 yards and two touchdowns. The two gentlemen sitting next to me in the press box took an early exit.

Dominick Postlewait, an 11-year-old decked out in East Fairmont gear, hopped into one of the vacant seats. While the Polar Bears built their lead to 41-13, he vigorously cheered every play, hoping for a miraculous comeback.

“I can’t remember a game where East Fairmont won,” he said.

Seeing the rivalry for the first time, I had to agree. The game that was billed as East Side vs. West Side turned out to be decidedly one-sided, with Fairmont Senior pulling away 41-13 to win its sixth straight and extend the all-time mark to 58-28-7.

Postlewait hoped he might have better luck by the time he made it to the high school.

“My dad calculated that when I’m a senior it will the the 100th year of the rivalry,” he said.

As I walked off the field, they pulled the plug on the blowup Bee while a man standing nearby patted the East Fairmont players on the back.

“Next year starts tomorrow,” he said as they walked to the locker room— like their blowup mascot— deflated.

Email Mike DeFabo at mdefabo@timeswv.com or follow on Twitter @MikeDeFaboTWV.

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