ONA — If it was permitted, Fairmont Senior girls’ coach Mark Offutt would simply return the bulk of the Lady Polar Bears’ trophies to their presenters. And if he could get away with it, Fairmont Senior boys’ coach Dayton McVicker would gladly bypass sliding into the edge of all post-victory team photos.
Neither of Fairmont Senior’s cross country coaches are about celebratory chores or achievement-based duties.
But on Saturday at Cabell Midland High School, Offutt reluctantly admitted he’d allow the FSHS girls to savor this trophy, while McVicker didn’t even contend meandering into camera frame aligned next to the FSHS boys.
When your team wins state championships, however — as both the FSHS girls’ and boys’ teams did in the Class AA-A ranks on Saturday — concessions must be made.
Offutt’s Lady Polar Bears got a trio of all-state performances from freshman Lydia Falkenstein and seniors Carlina Jacquez and Mackenzie Stanley to defeat Class A Williamstown by nine points and Class AA Winfield by 28 points en route to the program’s first state title since 2003.
“We’ve been close the past three years — second (2016), fifth (2017) and fourth (2018),” Offutt said, “but this was the number we were missing: No. 1.”
McVicker’s FSHS boys were powered by an individual state title outing by senior Ethan Kincell as well as all-state finishes from juniors Logan Zuchelli and Tyler Hayes to defeat Class AA Bridgeport by 10 points and etch the program’s first state title repeat after defeating Winfield by one point last season.
“I knew we were going to be ranked third after last year,” said McVicker, whose 2018 title squad graduated its top two runners in Tavian Richardson and Caleb Carlson, “and I was like, ‘That’s a shot at you guys. They’re saying you can’t win without Tavian and Caleb.’”
Saturday’s state title triumphs and the ensuing sentiments behind them were a reflection of both teams’ journeys to the podium.
Fairmont Senior’s girls had grinded away for years, reviving a dormant program throughout the early 2010s, which included a nadir in 2014 and 2015 in which FSHS didn’t even have enough runners to qualify at regionals. The team’s 2019 pillars in Jacquez and Stanley kickstarted the gradual climb as freshman in 2016, accepting the dedication to the daily workload past teams had cowered to. But the program’s reversal had yet to culminate in the ultimate prize.
“I’m super proud of my seniors Carlina and Mackenzie. I couldn’t be happier for those two. They’re the ones who work really hard year round,” Offutt said. “When they came into the program, the program was really, really bad. They came in and made us contenders and we’ve just been building every year.”
“We’ve been working for this for four years,” said Jacquez, who placed fifth overall at 19:54.11. “So to finally get it our last year is the best.”
“We’ve been waiting for this,” said Stanley, who finished ninth overall on Saturday with a career-best time of 20:25.54.
Jacquez and Stanley were the team’s bulwarks their entire careers and the whole 2019 season at large, but Fairmont Senior needed a boost elsewhere on the roster to shove aside the rosy Top 5 finishes and reach the ultimate pinnacle as state champs.
Falkenstein’s arrival slapped a check mark on that box, with the freshman bursting onto the scene early this season as a potential individual state contender. A midseason illness related to an iron deficiency sapped Falkenstein of peak energy and recovery, threatening to spoil an FSHS title bid in the process. She rebounded and started to return to her former self at the conference and regional meets in October before crushing it on Saturday with a team-best fourth place finish at 19:39.04.
Even outside of Falkenstein, Fairmont Senior’s freshman class was tossed into the fire after injuries to sophomore Taylor Kendziora and junior Kate McPherson — the team’s Nos. 4 and 5 runners at the 2018 state meet — robbed the Lady Polar Bears’ of its depth.
Nevaeh Primo, Stella Episcopo and Madison Awbrey were counted on to solidify the team’s final qualifying spot in some form or fashion as the team’s Nos. 5, 6 and 7 runners.
“I didn’t even realize it until we came down here to look at the course,” Offutt said of four of his top seven runners being freshman, “and then I looked at them and was like, ‘Oh, half of you guys haven’t even seen the course before.’ So that’s good for the future.”
Primo’s 60th place finish on Saturday clinched the title for the Lady Polar Bears, but it may have been junior Sophia Tomana’s performance that was the most impactful, Offutt said, with Tomana finishing 15th overall.
“She’s been struggling all year with health issues and she’s as good as Carlina and Mackenzie; all season long, she’s been a minute, minute and a half behind them, and she hasn’t been happy about it,” Offutt said, “but today she was able to step up and finish 15th.”
On the other side of the ledger, McVicker had already oversaw a steady rise, with the FSHS boys vaulting up the Class AA-A ranks from eighth in 2016, to runner-up in 2017, to state champs last season. But the top is only glorious for as long as one can stay there.
“It’s similar to last year in that we were running to not lose because we just don’t want to lose. I feel like the lows of losing are a lot worse than the highs of winning,” said McVicker. “I brought down our state runner-up from 2017 and I had them pass it around and was like, ‘Guys, look at this, if we’re not focused and if we don’t do what we need to do, we’re going to be holding this again. Remember how bad that felt to hold this?’”
Across Fairmont Senior’s roster, there was a universal moxie to shove it in the face of anyone who doubted a repeat or questioned their top dog status. And if there weren’t any...fine, the Polar Bears waged war on themselves, trying to smash their own marks from a year ago.
“We all kind of agreed, eight or nine times out of 10 Winfield beats us at states last year. We don’t think we were the fittest team last year,” McVicker said. “And that bothered (this year’s runners) too because we thought we were way better than last year’s team and that title was credited largely to Tavian and Caleb, so they wanted to get their own title.”
“I picked up my mileage, we all did,” said senior Alex Morris, who was the team’s No. 5 runner on Saturday, finishing 26th overall, eight points ahead of runner-up Bridgeport’s No. 5 runner. “There’s no way anyone has run more miles than us. We’re the most fit team in the state.”
And god forbid, when Fairmont Senior actually lost a meet in the regular season, it was a motivational seed for every second of every workout. After the team lost to Bridgeport at the Chick-Fil-A on Sept. 7, McVicker kept the runner-up plaque and regularly brought it to practice, he said, even putting it in the team’s cooler so runners would see it when they went to get water.
“We took that second place hard,” said Zuchelli, who finished fourth overall at the state meet. “Every now and then we would feel good, but we’d think back to that race so we’d understand we can’t stop working and how we have to keep pounding away at miles and hitting our practice marks. There’s no stopping good training.”
Kincell, Zuchelli and Hayes were the embodiment of that rigorous training, combining to tally a mere 13 points between them, but Nos. 4 and 5 runners Jasper Brown and Morris ensured Fairmont Senior maintained its perch as they accounted for a plus-eight net margin over Bridgeport’s Nos. 4 and 5 runners.
“At this time last year, Alex was watching — he should have been here, but he got injured last year — and he all he talked about the whole ride home (last season) was how he really wanted to contribute to a title,” McVicker said, “and the fact that he’s the one who scored the most points relative to Bridgeport, it really sealed the deal for us.
“He had only been in our Top 5 maybe once this year, so he hadn’t contributed much, but he was always like, ‘I’ll get it at states, I’m gonna do it at states.’ It’s a great comeback story. I’m just so happy for that kid.”
“It feels good, I’m not gonna lie,” said Morris of his clutch performance. “Last year at the state meet, we were watching the Boston Red Sox (World Series) game that went to like 19 innings or whatever and every batter got to hit one time. That was my thing for this race: One time, that’s all you need is one time.”
Email Bradley Heltzel at email@example.com.