FAIRMONT — Fairmont Senior’s aggression and technical discipline manifested into a 1-0 lead in the first 40 minutes, but the Polar Bears couldn’t separate any further. East Fairmont’s relentlessness and open field dynamism retaliated to tie the game at 1-1 in the next 20 minutes, but the Bees couldn’t edge ahead.
And the final 20 minutes constructed the perfect synopsis for what has become a perfect rivalry between East and West — high-level soccer played under the standard East-West conditions of ruthless physicality and unwavering chippiness.
Oh, and, of course, plenty of dead evenness on the scoreboard, as neither the Polar Bears nor the Bees conceded an inch, leaving Tuesday’s match at East-West Stadium to end in a 1-1 draw.
“It was just a typical East-West battle,” said Fairmont Senior coach Darrin Paul in as succinct a description of the game as possible.
Fairmont Senior controlled the majority of the game by the traditional purist soccer metrics of possession, feet-to-feet passing, and touches in the midfield. But East Fairmont has made an identity in this rivalry by finding ways to skirt around those axioms by way of near unbreakable defensive fortitude and quick-hitting counters in the open field that has matched and even superseded the Polar Bears time and time again.
The opening half was right up Fairmont Senior’s alley, 40 minutes of more deliberate, steady building through the midfield and into the attacking third.
The Polar Bears dictated the pace and minimized the end-to-end field flipping by racking up first touches and winning 50-50 balls, personal specialities of junior midfielder Jonas Branch who served as the team’s fulcrum. Branch’s expertise, along with sophomore Bubby Towns’ technical skills creating in tight spaces, gave FSHS the offensive advantage, especially with capable secondary ball handlers and passers, such as Nicky Keefover and Nate Flower, on the flanks.
All the while, Fairmont Senior’s backline of captains Seth Stilgenbauer and Isaac Branch at the centerbacks and Carson Mundell and Cale Beatty on the perimeter curtailed East’s dynamic duo of senior Aiden Slusser and junior Lance Cerullo.
Slusser’s touches were limited throughout the half and Cerullo’s dribble attacks were constantly dislodged by expert slide tackles from Branch and Stilgenbauer. And when the Bees tried to play more direct, FSHS’s backline was on a string, shifting in sync to evaporate attacks and angle away passing corridors.
“The first half, I thought we did a great job (controlling the game),” Paul said. “We had a strategy that we had started working on against Philip Barbour (last game), and I thought in the first half it looked really great.”
Fairmont Senior bent the game to its will in the opening half, firing six shots versus none for the Bees and owning a 4-1 advantage in corner kicks.
And in the 39th minute with just over a minute to play until the intermission, the Polar Bears grabbed a 1-0 lead to show for it when Billy Tobin followed up a Flower shot EFHS goalkeeper Cole Peschl went to his knees to block and put it away on the rebound.
“I’ll take the fact that we broke the scoreless streak against them and put one in the net,” said Paul after the Polar Bears were shutout across two games and 180 minutes against the Bees last season. “It was a big monkey off some of our kids’ backs.”
For as much of a breakthrough as the one goal was for the Polar Bears, it was the slew of other opportunities in the first half they missed out on that would eventually come back to bite them, an ongoing theme for West in the series. Multiple times, heroics from EFHS goalkeeper Cole Peschl wiped away golden scoring chances, with Peschl recording six saves on the night, including five in the first half; he saved back-to-back rebound shots in the eighth minute, and then in 36th minute, he leaped to tip away a shot one handed before gathering it in.
And the one time Peschl may have been caught out of position in the first half, EFHS outside defender Blake Boyers was there to back him up when he headed away a shot on an open net after FSHS got a touch on a free kick entry.
“I told the boys, against this team, when you have the opportunity, you have to put them down,” Paul said of the Bees. “We didn’t and guess what, they made us pay for it.”
Fortunate to be down only 1-0, East came out of the locker room after the half like a tornado. The hemmed in counter attacks, the broken up dribbles carries, the lack of impact from Slusser, it all reversed in the second half’s opening 20 minutes as the Bees zipped into openings and full-field attacks that pried at Fairmont Senior’s defense.
“To me, we didn’t win the first half because we didn’t have the character,” EFHS coach Jeff Merrifield said. “We were unorganized, we were nervous; I told them they looked like little kids out there running around.
“We had to change our attitudes and play the soccer we know how to play. I told them, ‘You guys have to be a little smarter, a little more organized and show us that you have the character to turn the game around.’ And that’s really what it was.”
Slusser twice broke into the open field on dribble carries down the middle with Cerullo to his left in the opening 10 minutes of the second half. FSHS’s Mundell angled off the first attack and Stilgenbauer perfectly timed a 2-on-1 scenario to break up the second. But the Bees were putting too much strain on the leavy for it not to break.
It finally did in the 50th minute when Cerullo turned the corner on the right flank, sucked in FSHS’s defenders and dropped a pass to Slusser who was steamrolling on a run down the middle for the point-blank put away goal.
“They’re smart players, so I kind of give them the freedom to play their game,” Merrifield said of Slusser and Cerullo.
“Second half we didn’t come out of the locker room for the first 20 minutes,” Paul said, “and when you do that, Lance and Aiden are going to bury you.”
But just like Peschl did for the Bees in the first half, Fairmont Senior goalkeeper Angelo Sabatino rescued the Polar Bears in the second half. As Slusser and Cerullo, courtesy of played ahead balls from Kadin Maxey and Luke Hawranick, sliced and diced in open space, turning FSHS’s backline into a pretzel, Sabatino stood firm. Twice in the 52nd minute and 65th minute, Sabatino stared down Cerullo in dead-to-rights, 1-on-1 situations and came out on top, bolting from the net to swipe dribbles clean of Cerullo’s foot.
“Angelo definitely got the game ball for us tonight,” Paul said. “He stole two right off of Lance’s foot, but that’s why he’s such a great keeper is because he’s not afraid to do it.”
Tied at 1-1 heading into the stretch run, the game devolved from West’s controlled play of the first half and East’s run-and-gun style of the opening 20 minutes in the second into a bloodbath. Shoulder checks were abound, positional jostling was a given, and 50-50 battles became a daredevil’s act. Fans berated a series of questionable calls and no calls by the officials, players were assessed yellow cards, and both teams’ coaches were rife with exasperation. East-West Stadium became a war zone.
Towns and Slusser each took a long-range rip at the net to no avail, Peschl saved shots by Beatty and Jonas Branch in the final 10 minutes, and Cerullo flashed a bit of handling artistry to get space for a shot that drilled off the left post in the 77th minute.
But neither team could quite break the seal as the game ended in a 1-1 stalemate as a sort of de facto nod of kudos to both.
Next time these two rivals meet, however, the game of soccer won’t be quite so forgiving.
Email Bradley Heltzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.