The Times West Virginian

Prep Sports

June 6, 2014

Eight-time runner-up FSHS travels to Charleston looking for elusive state title

CHARLESTON — After Austin Norman punched out the last Ravenswood hitter in the Region I title game last Friday night, the public address announcer at Mary Lou Retton Park pressed play on the stereo, sending John Denver’s “Country Roads” blaring through the speakers.

Take me home.

Country roads.

To the place.

I belong…

Indeed, Fairmont Senior is going back to a place so familiar the Polar Bears can almost call it home: West Virginia … Charleston, West Virginia, that is.

They will likely opt for a major interstate over a winding country road to get to today’s 7:30 p.m. showdown with Independence. But still, Fairmont Senior’s 11th appearance in the tournament in the past 12 years suggests that this is a place they belong.

“Death, taxes, and Fairmont Senior in the #wvprepbaseball state tournament.”

That’s how former Times West Virginian sports editor Tom Bragg put it on Twitter after the Polar Bears (22-8) advanced to Appalachian Power Park for the sixth-straight year. Elsewhere on social media, the hashtag #ChucktownBound popped up, suggesting that the Polar Bears are so familiar with West Virginia’s capital city that they are on a nickname basis with it.

But while getting to the single-elimination tournament has become a perennial right — one as common as, well, tax season — winning the big game has been as difficult for the Polar Bears as filing those tax returns by hand.

Beginning with a 15-3 letdown to Parkersburg in 1946, Fairmont Senior has lost the state championship game eight times. Seven times in the Steve Naternicola era — seven — the Polar Bears have been the runner-up. But never once have they been the ones holding the trophy on the final day.

During one especially difficult stretch from 2003 to 2005, the Polar Bears lost the championship game three times in a row.

“They were calling us the Buffalo Bills of baseball,” coach Naternicola said.

Last year’s loss was especially gut-wrenching. Fairmont Senior led 5-1 with two outs in the sixth inning. But by the time the Polar Bears recorded the third out of the inning, Herbert Hoover had taken a 7-5 lead, the momentum and the title.

The question is, is this the year the Polar Bears get the monkey off their back?

“I have a really good feeling now that this is the year it will happen,” said left fielder Ryder Skarzinski. “I felt the same way every year, but this year it is just set out for us.”

Skarzinski is one of five seniors who will be making a fourth straight appearance in the tournament. In addition to last season’s dramatic defeat, they lost in the finals as freshmen and in the semifinals as sophomores.

The tournament appearances make the seniors among the winningest classes in Fairmont Senior history — an accomplishment in itself. But this weekend at Appalachian Power Park represents one last chance to bury old demons and leave a lasting impression on their legacies.

“It’s the last time we can go down there as a group,” said senior pitcher and outfielder Austin Norman. “It’s time. It’s time to bring home some hardware. It’s time to get it done.”

Norman, a hard-throwing left-hander who relies heavily on his breaking ball, is expected to get the start on the mound for the Polar Bears against Independence. He’ll need to be on his game early with Patriots’ leadoff hitter Wyatt Adkins hitting .477 with seven home runs.

On the mound, the Patriots (26-7) are built upon a balanced pitching staff of Andrue Hughart (6-2), Brian Sexton (5-3) and Jeremy McGinnis (3-1). Sexton got the start last year when the Patriots lost to Herbert Hoover in the semifinals, but it’s unclear who will get the nod today.

“We haven’t had what we consider a true ‘one’ all year,” said Patriots’ coach Scott Cuthbert. “One day I think I know (who I’ll pitch.) The next day I’m not sure.”

After a pause, he added, “I don’t know if I’d tell you even if I did know.”

Should the Polar Bears win the semifinal game today, they will advance to Saturday’s 3 p.m. championship game against the winner of the Bridgeport-Chapmanville semifinal.

But from all of his experience, Naternicola knows better than to look past his first opponent.

“Anything can happen down there,” he said. “Hopefully one time it will fall our way.”

And if that ball does bounce the Polar Bears’ way, you just might hear them singing a familiar tune as their bus navigates the country roads — all the way home.

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

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