East Fairmont’s Clay Hershberger looks to pass during a game last season at East-West Stadium. Hershberger, a rising junior, will take over starting quarterback duties for the Bees in 2020.

PLEASANT VALLEY — East Fairmont High second-year head football coach Shane Eakle admitted even he was surprised the Bees pulled out four wins in 2019 in his debut season as head coach after returning to his alma mater following a long assistant coaching stint at Tucker County High.

East Fairmont, after all, entered last season as perhaps the state’s most struggling program following a two-year run in which the Bees went a combined 1-19. Laying the foundation for a rebuild was a daunting proposition.

Eakle and his EFHS coaching staff, however, implemented a more fortified culture bit by bit. The optimism around the program rose and the positivity within it swelled. Roster numbers increased and fan support heightened. Friday nights started to spur feelings of belief rather than ones of doom.

“Every team has a motto and ours is, ‘Speak with your actions,’” said Eakle, who established the new ethos last summer. “I think our kids bought into that as the course of last year developed, but it was a growing process.”

The program’s newfound emphasis on elements beyond the actual football field were paramount — they were the backbone that allowed for the very possibility of last season’s improvement that saw the Bees turn a winless 2018 into a 4-6 record in 2019.

Games, however, are still won or lost on the basis of what happens on the field, and the pathway to the Bees’ four wins a year ago will likely be reshaped and remodeled this year after the program graduated 12 seniors, including starting quarterback Dom Postlewait, leading rusher Luke Pollock, leading receiver Aiden Slusser, sack leader Avery Baker, and almost the entirety of its starting offensive line.

“It’ll definitely be a change because we have a lot of new faces,” Eakle said. “We only have seven seniors, so it changes thing for us; we have a lot of young kids and they’re going to be thrust into some of those roles, but, for the most part, with everything we’ve dealt with over the spring and the summer, they’ve done about as good of a job as they could’ve to prepare themselves.”

The loss of the sheer talent and performance level of players such as Postlewait, Slusser, Pollock, Baker and others can prompt initial pause in assessing East’s 2020 outlook compared to the end result of 2019.

There will be no improvisation from Postlewait that turns broken plays into sustainable outcomes. There won’t be any downfield lightning strikes from Slusser that shortcut the offense’s pathway to scores, nor tackles for loss by Baker that impose the reverse effect on opposing attacks. At first glance, all of that can add up into a thorny and undesirable question for the East faithful: Could the Bees be due for a regression this season?

Talk to Eakle and East’s returning players, however, and they’re willing to wager the program’s institutional growth can outweigh the loss of those seniors’ individual talents. Weight room stats and physical measurements are up considerably across almost the roster, Eakle said, and the players are more familiar with fundamental techniques and reads within the team’s schemes. The Bees, in other words, after years of hardship, are functioning as a legit program again.

“We’re trying to take the accomplishments and winning we did last year and use that to motivate everyone, because we know we can do better and we’re going to try to prove that to everybody this year,” said rising junior quarterback Clay Hershberger. “Last year everything was kind of new, and everybody, even the older guys, were still trying to learn the playbook, even halfway through the season it seemed like.”

“I think a big thing for us (this year) is just to clean up what we we’re doing,” Eakle said. “Dom did some great things for us last year, but one of the reasons he had to free wheel was because we really didn’t understand sometimes what our blocking assignments were, and then if we did get that right, we’d mess up something in the backfield. It was a type of thing where we were always chasing our own tail.

“Hopefully this year we can get all 11 guys on the same page so that we can actually get a look at some of the stuff as we’re supposed to do it. We’ve made a couple of tweaks to where, now in the second year, our kids will be able to make some of the reads and decisions we just weren’t able to do last year with it being the first year. We’re hopeful that will help us offset some other things this year.”

A lot of those steps in Year 2 will manifest up front going both ways, Eakle said. Personnel-wise, the Bees are light on experience along both the offensive and defensive lines — Josiah Smith is a returning starter as a junior while rising sophomores Evan Helm and Matt Collins saw snaps last season as well — but the enhanced familiarity with the system and collective gains in the weight room offer EFHS the potential to make amends in the trenches compared to 2019.

“We weren’t real good up front last year. We struggled. In nine out of 10 weeks, for a lack of a better term, we got dominated up front, so that meant even in three games we ended up winning, we got beat up front,” Eakle said. “It wasn’t necessarily the kids’ faults, we just hadn’t had the time to prepare — we hadn’t lifted and had a new system. I think with this year, hopefully our kids will be a little bit stronger now and we can at least hold our own.”

“We’re still usually going to be smaller than the people we’re playing against,” said Hershberger, “but I see that as kind of a good thing because we can move around a lot, get around guys and just use our legs...I mean a lot of those bigger guys can’t keep up with the smaller linemen we have so we can just get to the people we need to, and we’ve been really working on trying to learn the playbook, especially the line with knowing their assignments and who they’re blocking.”

Such strides are certainly realistic and necessary for what is still a young and inexperienced team overall. Hershberger is taking over the reins to the offense as the Bees’ new starting quarterback after throwing all of one varsity pass last season, and his top weapons will be rising senior receiver Adam Earls (276 yards, 3 TDs in 2019), rising junior receiver Joel Myers (244 yards, TD in 2019), and rising junior running back Will Sarsfield (160 rush yards, TD in 2019).

A lot of those same names will be the team’s core defensive pieces, with Sarsfield, a safety, and Earls, a linebacker, the team’s leading returning tacklers with 59 and 46 stops in 2019, respectively, while Earls and Smith are the leading returning sack leaders with 3.5 and two, respectively.

“Those (2019) seniors aren’t going to be with us obviously, so a lot of juniors and sophomores are going to be stepping up,” Earls said, “but if they do their role, it should work out.”

“We’re hungry,” Hershberger said, “and we just can’t wait to get out of the gates and get going.”

Email Bradley Heltzel at bheltzel@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.

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