FAIRMONT — When it comes to the Independence Patriots, Nick Bartic and the Fairmont Senior Polar Bears were ahead of the curve.
“Last year, after we played them in the quarterfinal— in those ‘way too early to tell’ polls that come out after the season— they were our pick as the team to watch out for,” Bartic said shortly after his team’s semifinals victory over Poca. “We said that last year. So we’re not surprised that Independence is who we have to prepare for on Friday.”
Indeed, the Patriots are the team Fairmont Senior will face off against on Wheeling Island, 7:00 p.m. Friday. The two teams took disparate routes to get to the state championship game— with Fairmont Senior starting the year 3-4 but ripping off five straight since then, and Independence touting a flawless 11-0 record and an offense that averaged over 50 points a game in the regular season.
But regardless of how either team made their way to the Super Six, all that matter now is Friday’s game, and it is poised to be a good one.
“Independence, they’ve been building a program for a couple seasons now,” Bartic said. “They aren’t just an overnight success. They’ve really worked their way and built their way to be in this position. Seeing them last year, we knew that they’d probably be back in the mix this year. They had a lot of guys returning, and just the biggest thing is that they’re big, they’re physical and fundamentally sound.”
The best place to start when talking about Independence is their tailback Atticus Goodson. 1,765 yards and 29 touchdowns in nine games has thrusted Goodson to the front of opposing team’s scouting reports, and the Polar Bears will have a tall task in keeping him bottled up.
Fairmont State’s defense, meanwhile, held opponents to under five yards per play in the regular season, and just over four yards per carry. Behind an imposing offensive line, Goodson has averaged over 11 yards per tote thus far in what will be the biggest test the Polar Bear front seven has faced.
“Atticus is a very, very physical player, so we’ve got to be physical on D,” Fairmont Senior line coach Tyler Phillips said. “They got the grogs, hogs, whatever they call themselves, up front. So we’ve got to be physical, we’ve got to meet them at the point of attack because if not, it’s going to be a long day.”
“Atticus, he’s a really good runner,” Fairmont Senior lineman Darius Hubbard said after last week’s Poca game. “But I feel like our defense is capable of holding him. Our defensive line is very strong, linebackers are very strong. They got to do their job, and we got to do our job.”
Independence is hardly a one-man show though. They’ve gotten 822 yards and 13 touchdowns out of their second running back Judah Price. Quarterback Logan Phalin threw for 1,198 yards and 20 touchdowns while running for 555 yards and eight scores. In the receiving game, their top two targets are Cyrus Goodson with 505 yards and seven touchdowns, and Trey Bowers with 478 yards and seven touchdowns.
“The trenches [are key], 100%,” Phillip said. “If we can stop them there, get some penetration on D, hold the run game down— but it’s not just Atticus, they have plenty of good players. They have a great quarterback. [Atticus’] brother Cyrus. Judah Price. They’re a very talented offense, especially in run game. We’ve just got to be physical up front.”
“They’ve expanded their scheme,” Bartic said. “They’re predominantly run, and they’re still going to run the ball, but they’ve been able to spread it out a little bit this year. They have athletic guys to throw it to. They have a quarterback who can run and throw. So they’re a little more balanced than they’ve been in the past, and that’s what makes them really tough to defend. You’re going to have to stay disciplined on defense.”
Hubbard, Eric Smith, Koby Toothman, Michael Kruzel, Germaine Lewis and the entire Fairmont Senior front seven will need strong showings Friday night.
For the Polar Bears’ part, they have weapons in their own right.
Germaine Lewis comes into the title game fresh off gashing Poca for 155 rushing yards, while quarterback Dom Stingo continued his torrid run of play by throwing for 159 yards and two touchdowns, while also running for a touchdown. Those two touchdowns were to senior receiver Kayson Nealy, who has caught at least one touchdown pass in every game so far this postseason.
“Offensively, we just have to play our game,” Bartic said. “That’s something that you could say every week, but we have to play our game. Get into a rhythm, and be physical up front ... Ball control and limiting penalties, that’s always big in playoff games and championship games.”
The Polar Bears faced Independence in last year’s playoffs, defeating them 43-15.
Fairmont Senior has been here before, having captured the state championship last year and making four title game appearances since 2016. No matter how many times a team has been there, the build-up surrounding a Super Six game is still something that the Polar Bears are managing.
“You want to keep it in perspective— this is the last game of the season,” Bartic said. “Win or lose, this is it. That’s a strong focal point that makes this different than, obviously, any other game in the season. You can say it’s like every other game but really it’s not, and they know that, and it shouldn’t be. It has a different feel, but other than that your preparation is standard. It’s balancing your standard preparation with treating it as the special moment that it is.”