FAIRMONT — Nearly every member of the Fairmont Senior High’s 2019 squad had likely suffered losses and endured defeats on the turf of East-West Stadium.
The hyper-competitiveness and sheer talent throughout the program surely led a lost 1-on-1 practice battle or a defeat in an offense versus defense intrasquad showdown across the roster at some point. But the Polar Bears, united as one team, pitted against outside opposition — those sorts of Fairmont Senior defeats simply don’t happen on 12th Street.
Until they do.
All throughout the winter, then the spring, and now the summer, the Polar Bears’ devastating state semifinal home loss to Bluefield last season has hovered as a nagging reminder, an unending fuel source. It was the program’s first loss at East-West Stadium since falling to Bridgeport Oct. 28, 2016.
“That game hurt us all,” said rising senior wide receiver Alex Brophy. “We’ve been back hungry and we’ve been working ever since we lost that game.”
The loss snapped Fairmont Senior’s 26-game winning streak, spoiled a fourth-consecutive Class AA state title game appearance, and undid the program’s 2018 state championship defense.
“Everybody has been bringing it every day in practice,” said senior quarterback and Kent State commit Gage Michael, who enters 2020 as a front runner for the Kennedy Award as the state’s top player. “The competitiveness is still at an all time high.”
The uniformity within the program extends beyond the team’s collective attitude and mentality. The Polar Bears’ talent level is still immense, the coaching staff is still touted as savants, and the expectation is still a state championship.
“People who want to sleep on us, every year they say the same thing,” said rising senior linebacker Nicky Scott, “and then we come out and do our thing.”
This year’s Polar Bears, even in the wake of graduating six players who received Class AA all-state recognition in 2019, including WVU commit Zach Frazier, are primed again to roll. Michael’s nuclear-level dynamism, a wealth of returning skill position talent, and the program’s avant-garde spread offensive system will be enough on their own to regularly rout most week-to-week opponents.
“We’re really explosive and we have a connection where we all click,” Brophy said of the FSHS offense. “I think honestly we can better (than the 2019 offense). We always have each other’s backs hyping each other up and that’s really what motivates us all.”
Last season’s offense rivaled the program’s record-setting unit from 2018 as assistant head coach Mike Mainella and offensive coordinator Mark Sampson unleashed Michael as a dual threat ace behind a dominant offensive line. Michael accounted for 3,943 total yards and 49 TDs as the Polar Bears lit it up for 445.5 yards and 46.2 points a game. It’s a high bar to clear, but Michael is back along with starting running back Kieshawn Cottingham and all-state honorable mention receiver Kayson Nealy, and there are a handful of other potential weapons in Brophy, fellow wideouts Evan Dennison and Jayden Cheriza, and sophomore running back Germaine Lewis who may be poised to pop.
“We’ve made a lot of big leaps everywhere,” Michael said.
“Right now, we feel like our skill guys are where they need to be, and we hope they can play to the expectations we have for them right now,” said Nick Bartic, the Polar Bears’ fourth-year head coach.
“The question mark, of course, is our offensive line.”
For the past five years, Fairmont Senior’s offensive and defensive fronts operated as mean, brash, man-eating machines, whether it was the Stills brothers cutting through blockers like butter or Frazier flattening them like a pancake. No more. The Stills’ are making hay at WVU and Frazier has followed in their footsteps, while fellow 2019 all-state honorees Dom Owens, Lance Payton and Nate Kowalski have also graduated.
“Individually, Coach Bigs (offensive line coach Troy Bigelow) has been on them a lot,” Michael said, “but that’s because he cares — he wants them to be the best they can be, he wants them to get better and better so we can make a run at the title.”
Along the offensive front, senior tackle Aidan Green, a whiz kid who has several D-III football offers from prestigious schools like John Hopkins and MIT, is the lone returning starter. Eric Smith, who is bulking up through his high school career, also received ample playing time at defensive end last season before a rash of injuries.
Green and Smith will be foundational pieces along both fronts, with the likes of Iain Campbell, Noah Clifton, Drew Laird and returning starting outside linebacker Will Runyan all vying for time.
“You have to play tough and you have to play physical,” Bartic said. “We have some guys who are ready, but they aren’t to the level of toughness that they need to be and they aren’t getting the same amount of reps as the guys who are.”
What level of two-way play Fairmont Senior can muster along the line of the scrimmage will likely determine the swing point for their season. Sure, Michael and Co. will post jaw-dropping numbers and romp through much of the schedule, but against the best teams and when the stakes are highest — true gut-check time if you will — it’ll be up to the Polar Bears’ offensive and defensive lines to deliver.
“As the D-line goes, our defense is gonna go,” said Bartic, with the Polar Bears’ defense conceding just 171.9 yards and 10.5 points a game last season. “As they progress and how physical they play, that’s going to determine how physical and progressed the rest of the defense will be.”
The defensive line, along with the team’s outside linebackers, are the pillars of Bartic’s defensive scheme which prioritizes containment on the edges and funneling plays to the inside. Fairmont Senior has the linebacker play to maintain their 2019 level with Scott, Runyan and Zach Toothman back as seniors, along with youngster reinforcements in Lewis, Landon Fluharty and freshman Dylan Ours, whose father and former Mountaineer Wes Ours has moved to the Fairmont area from Keyser.