By Bradley Heltzel
Times West Virginian
FAIRMONT — Across the state, across the country, high school football fall practices got underway Monday with the kickoff to the regular season less than a month away in West Virginia as multiple Class A schools will begin play on Monday, Aug. 26 before Class AA and AAA join in on Thursday, Aug. 29, and then the rest of the state follows suit with a full Friday slate the next day.
“It’s the nationwide phenomenon of football season being back in the air,” said third-year Fairmont Senior head coach Nick Bartic, whose Polar Bears started practice at 8:30 a.m. on Monday as the reigning Class AA state champs with an undefeated 14-0 season in 2018. “That in itself makes it feel good just to be back out here.”
Fairmont Senior was the first of the three Marion County teams to get on the field Monday, trotting onto the turf at East-West Stadium an hour before 11th-year coach Daran Hays and North Marion did so at Roy Michael Field at 9:30 a.m. and 2 1/2 hours before East Fairmont got started under first-year coach Shane Eakle at Tucker County High School at 11 a.m.
“All of us are really excited to be back out here and working our hardest to try to get back to a state championship,” said FSHS senior wideout Camden Longwell, who, along with his senior teammates at FSHS, will be eyeing the program’s fourth consecutive state title game appearance this season.
The Polar Bears began their schedule Monday with a pair of practices at 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., abiding by the traditional format for weekly two-a-days by doubling up Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The Huskies and Bees went with single practices on Monday before heading to team camp Tuesday morning, with NMHS heading to Camp Mar Mac in Farmington through Friday evening and EFHS going to Camp Kidd in Tucker County for Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I really think the way we gel together as a team this week is going to dictate a lot of how we finish this year,” said Hays, who decided to forgo scheduling a two-a-day to open on Monday because of his players’ commitments to participate in the Mannington Fair’s opening parade that evening. “I know (people) are really nervous about (the team camp), but I think even the parents and everyone else would admit probably the biggest thing we’re going to accomplish is we’re gonna get the cell phones out of their hands a little bit and make them talk to each other.”
North Marion, which will instead hold two-a-days Tuesday and Friday this week, had the highest number of players of the county teams for Monday’s opening practice with participants into the high 50s. Fairmont Senior was just a hair below the 50-player mark with 47 participants on Monday, while East Fairmont’s numbers were drastically improved from where they opened fall practice a year ago.
With teams not permitted to practice in pads until Friday at the earliest and contact not allowed until the fourth padded practice based on West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission rules, Monday and much of the first four practice days revolve around system installation and conditioning, Bartic and Hays said.
At North Marion, for example, the Huskies went through their opening conditioning test — a series of sprints that amount to 700-800 yards, Hays said — which all but seven players passed.
“I was really proud of them for responding to that,” Hays said.
Fairmont Senior, meanwhile, ended their practice with a series of sprints after going through multiple offense-only two-minute drills.
“I think (WVSSAC officials) view it as more conditioning, but most people use it as install without contact,” Hays said.
East Fairmont surely has its hands full adapting to a new scheme under Eakle and his staff, but Hays and offensive coordinator Mark Yoho are also implementing a few noteable offensive changes at North Marion and understanding the myriad personnel packages and formations in Fairmont Senior’s spread system is always a whirl-of-a-time in the case of younger players stepping into larger roles.
“You got to pay attention or you’ll get lost,” said Longwell of FSHS’s spread attack which will thrust an uptick in reps onto skill position players, such as Nicky Scott and Frankie Smith, with Longwell as the team’s lone varsity holdover at wideout from 2018 when he caught 39 balls for 648 yards and seven touchdowns.
“It’s a lot to take in your first year. Like it took me two years to kind of get it, but some people are faster than others; I was slow.”
Those younger players fared better than expected in terms of grasping the basic offense in the team’s debut session, Bartic said, and the veterans were solid as usual.
“That’s encouraging they are at that point,” Bartic said, “but as we move forward, we’ll see how that progresses when you put pads on with a defense.”
Hays and the Huskies, meanwhile, will tweak a few aspects of their offense here and there and will likely utilize more under-center looks compared to last season.
“Offensively, I think every year you zero in on what you think you’re gonna be really good at,” Hays said. “So, especially from a backfield perspective, they can use the extra reps.”
The pad and contact restrictions also make the opening few days of fall practice more conducive to offensive install as opposed to defensive install and fundamentals, such as tackling, Hays said.
NMHS, for example, will lean into offense more this week — about a 5:3 ratio, Hays said — instead of a more even 50-50 split. There’s also the risk of non-contact run throughs and drills sapping bits of intensity and energy in practice once the “good to be back” adrenaline bump wears off.
“We always find a way to sprinkle some competition into anything that we’re doing. No contact, no pads, it doesn’t matter, there’s always going to be some type of competition where guys either win or lose. And if you don’t like losing, you better find out a way to win,” Bartic said. “Everyone’s excited on the first day, but we’ll see how excited and how high their energy level is Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. That’s when you really get to see the true makeup of their attitudes.”