FAIRMONT — Independence proved its toughness and its fight, but eventually the mojo of Fairmont Senior, the energy of the 12th Street Thunderdome, and the fate of what's become an annual Fairmont-Bluefield playoff showdown were too much to withstand for the visiting No. 14-seeded Patriots, as the No. 6-seeded Polar Bears ripped off a 28-0 third quarter en route to a 43-15 state quarterfinal victory Friday night.
With the victory, Fairmont Senior moves on to the Class AA state semifinals for the sixth-consecutive season, where it'll face — you guessed it — No. 2-seeded Bluefield next Saturday at 4 p.m. at Mitchell Stadium after the Beavers defeated No. 10 North Marion 33-10 Friday in the quarterfinals. It'll be the fourth straight season in which the Polar Bears and Beavers will meet in the playoffs, with the two programs splitting back-to-back state title game matchups in 2017 and 2018 and Bluefield winning last year's postseason matchup in the state semifinals.
"You could tell (Independence) was prepared — they were ready to roll and they did a nice job of taking advantage of their opportunities to get a good start," said Fairmont Senior coach Nick Bartic, who improved his postseason record to 11-2 as Polar Bears coach. "But you know that's playoff football — you're gonna have to handle waves and handle momentum swings — and once we got into the second half we did a nice job with that flurry to kick off the half and take control of the game."
The 28-0 avalanche by the Polar Bears (9-2) in the third quarter was spurred on, first, by a short field on their first series of the second half and then by back-to-back takeaways. By the midway point of the quarter, Fairmont Senior had already hung 21 points on Independence (5-3) and has ballooned a 15-7 halftime lead to 36-8.
"I really thought we started off the game with the same energy we did in the second half, it was just a matter of penalties and giving up big plays; those were the two things we did not want to do and we did both of those things in the first quarter and then we found ourselves in a tight game," Bartic said.
The third quarter Fairmont Senior deluge began after Independence started the second half with a three-and-out that gave the Polar Bears the ball at the Indy 47 yard-line and resulted in Kieshawn Cottingham 7-yard TD run three plays later.
On the Patriots' ensuing drive, Fairmont Senior linebacker Nicky Scott forced a fumble on the very first play and Evan Dennison recovered for the Polar Bears to give the ball right back to FSHS at the Independence 32 yard-line. Cottingham again hit pay dirt on a 7-yard TD run to make it 29-8.
Then the vicious cycle repeated itself for Independence, as Dennison nabbed an interception on the Patriots' very next play and Cottingham found the end zone moments later for his fourth touchdown of the night, this time on a 6-yard toss to right side.
Just like that, in a span of exactly two minutes of game clock, Fairmont Senior went from scraping by the Patriots in a one-score game at 15-8 to coasting past them at 36-8.
"We played one of the best teams in the state, I thought, toe-to-toe, and then we made a couple of mental mistakes in the third quarter and they did what good teams do, they capitalized," said third-year Independence coach John Lilly, who got the Patriots back to the postseason this year for the first time since 2016. "If we don't turn the ball over, I think we make it a game, but I congratulate them — they did a good job at halftime adjusting to us."
The run of three touchdowns in two minutes served as Independence's doom, but it also acted as Cottingham's spotlight, with the Polar Bears' senior running back stealing the show from two of the state's premier offensive stars in teammate Gage Michael and Indy running back Atticus Goodson. Cottingham's three straight TD runs in the third quarter were added to a highlight reel that already included a 60-yard TD catch in the first half on a feathery ball Michael dropped right in the bucket on wheel route up the left sideline.
"He's had maybe 10 touchdowns called back this season, so he was due," Bartic said of Cottingham. "It was good to see him finally get rewarded for all of the hard work he's put in — he's consistently one of our hardest working guys, and you couldn't be happier for a competitor like him."
"I was just using my speed to my advantage tonight," said Cottingham, who amassed 126 scrimmage yards to go with his four touchdowns. "But I got to give it up to my offensive line, they did a very good job tonight, and (on the) play where I ran the wheel route, it was just a great ball by Gage right over the top and I just took off from there."
Cottingham's three-touchdown scoring spree in the third quarter, and the eventual 28-0 frame by the Polar Bears overall, wiped away what was a very competitive first half between the powerhouse Polar Bears and the upstart Patriots, as Independence's physical ground game and stingy pass defense made Fairmont Senior sweat.
"We wanted to earn respect and I'm real proud of my guys," Lilly said. "We threw the kitchen sink at them."
Independence actually took an 8-0 lead at the 4:57 mark of the first quarter after the Patriots defense forced consecutive FSHS punts to start the game and then Goodson scored on a 2-yard toss to complete a four-play, 52-yard drive. The initial scoring march was highlighted by a 29-yard connection on a slant between Indy quarterback Isaiah Duncan and Cyrus Goodson, Atticus' little brother, as well as a bulldozing 19-yard run by Atticus.
"We know they got a great team and got a good player in Gage, but we got a doggone good player, too," Lilly said of the older Goodson, who entered Friday's quarterfinal with 1,506 rush yards and 25 total TDs for the season.
Goodson and his offensive line certainly made their mark in the first half, as Goodson's motor ran non-stop and proved a load to bring down. He finished the night with 110 rush yards on 24 carries, with 88 of those yards coming in the first half.
"He's a good running back — he's a big, physical running back, we knew that coming in," Bartic said, "and it's going to be a matter of being consistent throughout the game whenever you're facing a running back like that."
Goodson, however, wasn't the game's only star burning with a relentless fire, as Fairmont Senior's Kennedy Award candidate in Michael toggled his weaponry from his arm to his legs and ticked off 42 total rush yards on FSHS's ensuing drive before capping the series with a 1-yard TD run and two-point conversion hook-up to Cottingham to tie it at 8-8 with under a minute in the opening quarter. Two possessions later, Michael and the Polar Bears swiped a 15-8 lead on the aforementioned 60-yard TD pass to Cottingham with just under four minutes until the half.
Michael finished the game 6-of-13 for 149 yards and TD through the air, while also rushing for another 141 yards and a score.
Independence nearly mounted its own response via a 9-play, 57-yard march but had the clock run out just short of the end zone when Goodson was tackled by FSHS's Scott and company at the FSHS 2 yard-line after taking a swing pass from Duncan at the FSHS 11. Scott finished the game with four tackles and a forced fumble for the Polar Bears, while Braelyn Michael recorded a team-high eight tackles, including a tackle for loss, for FSHS and Zach Toothman tallied six stops and a forced fumble.
As the Patriots went into the half, those two yards loomed as a potential backbreaker, but by the midway point of the third quarter, it was buried beneath any number of other crushing moments delivered by the Polar Bears.
"It felt really good (to win this one) knowing who we now got next week," Cottingham said of Friday's victory. "Now we're gonna come back and do what we can do for next week."
Fairmont Senior 43, Independence 15
FSHS 8 7 28 0 — 43
INDY 8 0 0 7 — 15
Records: Fairmont Senior (9-2), Independence (5-3)
IN - Atticus Goodson 2-yard run (Goodson run)
FS - Gage Michael 1-yard run (Michael pass to Kieshawn Cottingham)
FS - Michael 60-yard pass to Cottingham (Nicky Scott kick)
FS - Cottingham 7-yard run (Scott kick)
FS - Cottingham 7-yard run (Scott kick)
FS - Cottingham 6-yard run (Scott kick)
FS - Koby Toohtman 3-yard run (Scott kick)
IN - Judah Price 6-yard run (Colton Blackburn kick)
TEAM STATISTICS FS IN
Total first downs 13 11
by rush/pass/penalty 10/2/1 10/1/0
Rushing plays 35 48
net yards 234 200
yards per rush 6.7 4.2
Passes (comp/att/Int) 6/13/0 3/7/1
yards passing 149 44
Total plays 48 55
net yards 383 244
yards per play 8.0 4.4
Penalties/yards 6/35 4/30
RUSHING — Fairmont Senior: Gage Michael 15-141 TD, Kieshawn Cottingham 10-58 3 TD, Nicky Scott 1-13, Koby Toothman 2-5 TD, Zach Toothman 2-5, Landon Fluharty 1-5, Gavin Michael 1-5, Alec Cross 2-3, TEAM 1-(-1). Independence: Atticus Goodson 24-110 TD, Judah Price 8-49 TD, Isaiah Duncan 13-42, Tyler Linkswiler 2-4, TEAM 1-(-5).
PASSING — Fairmont Senior: Michael 6-13, 149 yards, TD. Independence: Duncan 3-7, 44 yards, INT.
RECEIVING — Fairmont Senior: Cottingham 2-68 TD, Dom Stingo 2-58, Alex Brophy 1-14, Scott 1-9. Independence: Cyrus Goodson 2-35, A. Goodson 1-9.