FAIRMONT — It’ll be an unfamiliar opponent but a very familiar environment tonight for Class AA No. 6 seed Fairmont Senior.
On the one hand, the Polar Bears faces an opponent they’ve never played in program history in No. 14-seed Independence, but on the other the hand, the Polar Bears will host a state quarterfinal matchup at East-West Stadium for the sixth-consecutive season when they take the field for today’s 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
“Any time we get the Thunderdome on 12th Street, our guys enjoy it just a little bit more,” said Fairmont Senior coach Nick Bartic, who owns a 10-2 (.833) playoff record in four seasons as FSHS coach entering tonight’s showdown.
Fairmont Senior (8-2) enters tonight’s quarterfinal after putting a pasting on No. 11 Braxton County 60-34 in the first round, while Independence (6-2) advanced past No. 3 Frankfort via a forfeit due to COVID-19.
“We definitely feel fortunate to have the opportunity to play on 12th Street. That’s always special, especially for the seniors,” said Bartic, whose Polar Bears would’ve played at Frankfort had the Falcons moved on. “But it is unfortunate for Frankfort that they didn’t get to play — that’s sad for their guys and their team and for all the teams that don’t get the opportunity to play.”
The winner of tonight’s matchup will move on to the semifinals next week, where they’ll take on the winner of No. 2 Bluefield and No. 10 North Marion matchup.
Fairmont Senior, despite ending up as just the No. 6 seed in Class AA, will be heavy favorites over the visiting Patriots, and really, alongside Bluefield, the Polar Bears are a consensus Top 2 team in Class AA. Fairmont Senior, which hasn’t lost since Sept. 25, saw each of its two losses come against Class AAA powerhouses in No. 3 Musselman and No. 5 Bridgeport, and the Polar Bears have a huge win over Class AAA No. 6 Spring Valley as well as regular season victories over three other Class AA playoff teams in No. 8 Robert C. Byrd, No. 10 North Marion and No. 16 Elkins. Independence, by contrast, lost its lone regular season game against a playoff opponent — falling to now-dispatched Class AA No. 4 Liberty Raleigh 36-26 on Oct. 2 — and also suffered a 50-24 defeat to Class A Petersburg.
“It’s one more game at 12th Street senior year,” said FSHS star quarterback Gage Michael. “We got to go out on top.”
Independence’s road to the state quarterfinals has primarily, and almost singularly, been laid forth by star junior running back Atticus Goodson. Goodson, who was captain of the Class AA all-state second team in 2019 as a sophomore, enters tonight with 1,506 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns on 133 carries for the season. Goodson, is the Patriots’ sole ball carrier for the most part, and the team’s entire offensive design is predicated on old-school trench warfare with extra lineman and lead blockers in the backfield.
“They run a lot out of unbalanced (formations) and they try to overload — they’re just trying to play the numbers in the box is what their game is about. It’s a lot of power,” Bartic said of the Patriots. “But (Goodson) stands out.”
There’s not a whole lot of novelty to the Patriots’ rushing attack, Bartic said, although they will toggle between straight handoffs to Goodson and power-based tosses with multiple lead blockers. Regardless, the onus of slowing down the Patriots will fall directly on Fairmont Senior’s front seven, a unit that has made strides this season and has faced plenty of run-heavy teams, such as all three Class AAA titans (Bridgeport, Musselman, Spring Valley) as well as Elkins and Robert C. Byrd.
“We’ve done a good job against run-heavy teams,” Bartic said. “Coach (Tyler) Phillips has done a great job with our defensive line in bringing them along as the season has gone on — they have a better understanding of our scheme and they’ve continued to improve.”
Fairmont Senior’s defensive front may no longer be the treasure trove of top-tier talent that sent the Stills brothers, Darius and Dante, Zach Frazier and Rhett Heston up I-79 to coach Neal Brown at WVU, but the Polar Bears are still physical, disciplined and nasty at the point of attack. Koby Toothman has quietly emerged as sort of the playmaker of the FSHS D-line, and Bralyn Michael has markedly improved as well alongside the already-established Eric Smith.
And the duo of Will Runyan and Zach Toothman are the Polar Bears’ unsung heroes as the edge setters at outside linebacker, a vital, but unglamorous role within a FSHS defensive scheme that has typically owned run-heavy, one-dimensional offenses.
“They are run heavy,” Bartic said of Independence, “but you can’t fall asleep in terms of play action and give up a big play. It was good to play someone last week (in Braxton County) who throws the ball and has a couple of athletic receivers, because something Independence is capable of also is getting the ball up in the air. So our guys have to do a better job from last week in terms of making plays on the ball.”
Fairmont Senior’s defense gave up 185 passing yards in last week’s victory against the Eagles, and while 100 of those yards came after the half against FSHS backups, Braxton County did a hit on multiple big plays downfield in the competitive portion of the game. That was partially due to Fairmont Senior thrusting new players into larger roles due to injuries in the secondary, but the Polar Bears are likely to be down a few guys again this week, Bartic said, due to both injuries and COVID-19 quarantine protocols related to contact tracing at Fairmont Senior High.
While Goodson versus Fairmont Senior’s run defense may make for a fitting battle, the Patriots’ defense will be hard-pressed in dealing with Fairmont Senior’s Bear Raid offense conducted by Michael and company. Michael absolutely lit up Braxton last week, piling up 211 rushing yards and 107 passing yards en route to a whopping seven total touchdowns (4 rushing, 3 passing) in just the first half.
“We were missing a couple of guys, but we adjusted well. The guys who came in, they know what they’re doing and they played well — I don’t have anything bad to say about them, but I played bad honestly,” said Michael after the Braxton game, referring to a pair of interceptions he threw.
Turnovers, in general, pestered Fairmont Senior’s offense last week, really the only bugaboo, for the Polar Bears turned it over on three of their 10 first-half possessions and then scored touchdowns on the other seven.
For the season, Michael is now up to 1,310 rushing yards with 15 TDs and 1,877 passing yards with 26 TDs. Running back Kieshawn Cottingham ranks second to Michael on the Polar Bears in total scrimmage yards with 570 yards, and FSHS also has three different receivers with 300-plus yards in Evan Dennison (480 yards), Alex Brophy (437 yards) and Jayden Cheriza (336 yards).