FAIRMONT – Quarters were a bit stuffy and any connection to the outside world was almost completely closed off. It was a situation tailor-made for traces of discomfort.
It was also the exact design Fairmont Senior High’s brain trust of coaches Darrin Paul and Jim DeNardi had intended.
“We specifically went to camp so these guys could be away from everything – cellphones, girlfriends, parents,” said Paul of the team’s three-day preseason camp in Doddridge County that had 30-plus players crammed into two and a half rooms featuring military-style bunk beds. “They had no choice but to hangout and get to know each other.”
The August mini camp was Exhibit A in Paul’s and DeNardi’s newfound prioritization on unity and genuine friendship within the team heading into 2019 after crushing season-ending losses in 2017 and 2018 prompted the two long-time FSHS coaches to seek competitive advantages beyond the lines of play.
Those sectional title game losses to East Fairmont in 2017-18 were probably more attributable to razor-thin, hard luck bounces than anything else, but Paul candidly admitted in August he believed such brutal defeats were also a reflection of slight cracks in the Polar Bears’ togetherness.
“We were up front with it,” Paul said of the team’s solidarity. “We said, ‘Listen, you guys don’t have to like each other 24/7, but when we’re together, we’re a family.’ Families will have disagreements, but we all got each other’s backs. We have a group that really cares about each other.”
Dig into the makings of the Polar Bears now, who will make their return to the Class AA state tournament for the first time since 2015 when they take on Winfield today at 4:30 p.m., and those familial vibes emanate throughout the team.
“Everybody likes each other and we hang out as a group at school and everything,” said freshman forward Nate Flower. “That camp, I think that really helped a lot.”
“We’ve done a lot more group meetings, too...no coaches, just the captains talking to us and seeing how we’re doing mentally,” said junior reserve defender Isaac Yoneda. “We don’t really make fun of each other or beat each other down. We’re all just friends.”
“There’s a lot of us just being boys and hanging out,” said junior outside midfielder Nicky Keefover. “And that helps immensely when you’re on the field because a lot of times teams will become divided; you’ll have the thought, ‘Oh, he made a bad play, I’m not gonna play him the ball.’”
It’s in that vein where the residual effects of the Polar Bears’ personal team-wide bonds have seeped into the actual on-field product. It’s eroded away any possible egos that would’ve constructed a player hierarchy and absolved of any personal grudges.
Communication can be more direct when it doesn’t come with the pretense of having to massage its contents or its delivery for the sake of how it will be interpreted.
“A huge stress point this whole season has been accountability,” said Keefover. “If somebody makes a bad play, you don’t have to call them out negatively, but you need to tell them, ‘Hey, you can pick up your game, we can play harder.’
“That starts with the captains. They’re the top players on the team, but they’re still very humble, which inspires the other really good players on the team to also remain humble.”
That sort of vision is both freeing and uplifting at the same time on the field, especially for FSHS’s role players, such as Keefover, Flower, Yoneda, freshman midfielder Kaelen Armstrong, reserve midfielder Ro Jones and outside defenders Cale Beatty and Carson Mundell. Fairmont Senior’s stars — Isaac Branch, Jonas Branch, Seth Stilgenbauer, Bubby Towns, etc. They can rightfully harness more on-field autonomy, prestige and overall security; any errors on their parts are more than made up for by their overall impact in the long run.
With role players, there’s a tricky art to navigating how to play off of those stars, especially after you’ve just let a brilliant through ball pass by one of the Branch brothers or got burned on the flank by an opposing ball handler.
“We’re only as strong as our weakest player,” said Paul, echoing the labeling of soccer as a weak-link game versus say basketball, which is a strong-link sport.
When that realization spreads throughout the entire team and egos and insecurities are washed away by togetherness centered around a collective goal, the natural inclination and incentive from teammates is to lift up their peers no matter the circumstances.
“You cannot survive at any level of soccer without having everybody buy in to the ideal,” said Keefover, who joked in his mom’s optimal world he’d be put in position to score more goals. “Teams win games, not just one player.”
“We’ve preached since June that everybody needs to find their role,” said Paul, “whether it’s the guy who scores 20 goals or if it’s the guy who knows I’m gonna go in for five minutes and give my all just to give a break and then I’m gonna sit on the bench and cheer my team on.
“Those (role) guys have bought into it. They know they’re a part of this team, we’ve talked about it. You may get five minutes in the state semifinals, but those fives minutes are going to make a difference of whether we win or lose.”
“That’s what our message is this weekend, ‘Tune out the noise and work for the 22 and the results will take care of itself.’”