FAIRMONT — It had been a couple of weeks since the team’s loss, but Fairmont Senior High head coach Nick Bartic had yet to bring himself to re-watch the film. Similarly, it had been months after that same loss, but star quarterback Gage Michael had yet to bring himself to let the game go.
Everyone within Fairmont Senior’s locker room coped and grappled with the reality differently in the aftermath of the team’s 2019 season-ending state semifinal loss to Bluefield at East-West Stadium last fall, the program’s first defeat since the 2017 Class AA state title game. But practically each and every response by a member of the Polar Bears to that state semifinal game — no matter how varied they were — stemmed from a universal ideal: Competitiveness.
“Everybody here is a pretty tough competitor, and everybody here wants to win,” said Michael, a rising senior entering the 2020 season. “That’s just the standard at Fairmont Senior.”
Such norms and expectations have powered the Polar Bears to double digit wins in each of the past five seasons, with the program reaching three-consecutive Class AA state title games (16-18) and winning the 2018 Class AA state championship in that span. Year in and year out, the Polar Bears have atoned for graduation losses and replaced all-state stars, they’ve adapted their schemes and adjusted their tendencies.
And year in and year out, they’ve won a lot and have won by a lot.
“It’s just year to year,” said Bartic, who’ll enter his fourth season as head coach this fall. “You have to feel out what your personnel is, and then in terms of our scheme, it’s situational where you can adjust for your personnel.”
That clockwork-like process on 12th Street has managed to sustain in an offseason and a calendar year thus far in which practically nothing else has, according to Bartic. Even amid all the hitches and glitches and still lingering unknowns surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the status of the upcoming season, the Polar Bears have kept the vision and maintained the course this offseason as they wrapped up the annual three-week live practice period this past week.
“As a whole, I feel, especially among our upperclassmen, they’re in better condition than really we expected them to be in given the hiatus and how choppy the offseason has been,” Bartic said regarding the team’s return to football activities during the three-week period.
“It’s felt good to finally get back out here,” Michael added. “I think we’re looking pretty well.”
Michael, who said he’s zeroed in on preparing his body for a full season’s worth of punishment this offseason after getting injured before the 2019 postseason, will of course be the epicenter of the Polar Bears’ 2020 aspirations. One of the top returning players in the state, Michael accounted for a combined 3,943 yards and 49 total touchdowns last season as the leader of an FSHS offense that averaged 445.4 yards and 46.2 points a game last season.
Outside of Michael, however, the Polar Bears’ offense lost three of its top four receivers from last season and five of the six offensive linemen who made at least one start in 2019, including all-staters Zach Frazier, Dom Owens and Lance Payton.
“Over the years you have the ebb and flow of positions, and we’ve had an unusual situation the past couple of years where we had a lot of depth at the line position,” said Bartic, whose Polar Bears have cycled through all-state linemen, such as the Stills brothers, Darius and Dante, Frazier, Owens, Payton and Magnus Sheets the past five seasons, with Hunter Corley and Nate Kowalski among a long list of other standouts up front as well. “You have to remind yourself, ‘This is normally how it goes. These are more normal circumstances.’”
Rising senior Aidan Green is the team’s lone 2020 returnee up front with starting experience after Frazier, Owens, Payton, Kowalski and Jason Howard all graduated this past spring. Fellow rising senior Iain Campbell also received a few snaps last season and was in a preseason battle for a starting spot, but get past Green and Campbell and the Polar Bears are left with virtually no non-garbage time varsity experience along the line.
“They have big shoes to fill and they know that, and it seems like they’ve been working hard,” Bartic said. “We got guys coming along.”
The Polar Bears line may not be the sneering, road-grading, utterly dominant unit it’s been in the recent past, but Michael and the team’s batch of skill position players may be poised to make amends. Fairmont Senior’s spread shotgun system designed by lead assistant coach Mike Mainella and offensive coordinator Mark Sampson will always give the Polar Bears a baseline advantage against overtaxed defenses, but according to both Michael and Bartic, the team’s burgeoning group of skilled position players are on track to drastically accentuate that advantage through both their talent and thorough understanding of the system.
“Having an experienced quarterback who is also talented is always a help, but then our skill guys, while as a whole they’re younger, I think they have potential. They have a lot of talent and they’re also a hardworking group,” Bartic said. “They’re guys who have learned the offense and understand it, which determines how limited you’re going to be or how much can you can expand and evolve within what you’re doing.”
Rising junior receiver Kayson Nealy and rising senior running back Kieshawn Cottingham headline the skill position group as returning 2020 starters who finished second on the team in receiving and rushing, respectively, in 2019. Beyond that duo, though, rising senior receiver Alex Brophy and rising junior receiver Evan Dennison lead a group of potential breakout skill position candidates for 2020.
“I have a great connection with them,” Michael said of the team’s receivers, specifically mentioning the trio of Nealy, Brophy and Dennison. “We’ve been working ever since last season before everything got shut down, and now, we’re just working on timing and routes and everything.”
The team’s defensive outlook follows the same script, with front-seven linchpins Frazier, Owens, Kowalski and Malachi West having departed due to graduation. Holdovers Nicky Scott at inside linebacker, Will Runyan at outside linebacker, and a finally healthy, and supposedly bulked up Eric Smith at defensive end will be back as building blocks in the front seven, while Michael, Cottingham and Jayden Richardson are set to return as core members of the secondary.
“Our spread offense is run in a way where we can adjust to whatever our personnel is in terms of run heavy, pass heavy or being balanced. It’s the same deal on defense, it’s adjustable,” Bartic said. “That makes it easier on the players to know what they’re doing. It takes less off of their plate when they’re just trying to relearn what they’ve already been doing rather than having a whole new system.”