Aiden SLusser

East Fairmont’s Aiden Slusser (3) leaps for a header over Fairmont Senior’s Guide Hippolyte as Jonas Branch (10) and Luke Hawranick (24) look on during the Region I, Section 2 championship game on Oct. 20, 2018.

FAIRMONT — High school sports are sadly over for the 2018-19 school year, but during these tough times, we can take solace of what was this past season and remember the marque moments.

Thus, it’s now time for the second annual — yes, Associated Press-style-approved annual — ranking of my Top 5 games from the past year in high school sports. Here are the caveats and criteria for my rankings:

• The rankings are completely subjective (there’s no points nor voting system), but there are various factors that are considered in splicing together the list, including a game’s stakes, defining moments and inter-county matchups among others.

• Also, only games I covered are eligible for the list, which immediately lops off a couple of doozies from consideration. Among notable games that are ineligible due to such criteria are: Fairmont Senior girls’ basketball’s state tournament games, the state title games for Fairmont Senior’s boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, almost every wrestling match, both Fairmont Senior boys’ basketball matchups against Robert C. Byrd, East Fairmont softball’s extra-innings sectional title win over Oak Glen, the 12-inning marathon between Fairmont Senior and North Marion for the sectional baseball title, and many others. Now, let’s get to it.

5. Softball: Herbert Hoover at East Fairmont, March 30, 2019

Herbert Hoover 2, East Fairmont 0

I’ve never seen and don’t anticipate ever seeing again East Fairmont coach Steve Swiger as satisfied with a defeat as he was after this game. That’s the price of Swiger elevating the Bees into the upper wrungs of Class AA softball: No more morale victories no matter the odds.

But going into this game against Herbert Hoover, the Bees were still just a pseudo contender, a program that had made tremendous strides, but was little more than a blip on the state radar. Play tit-for-tat with the Huskies, the empire of Class AA softball, and respect and recognition are sure to follow.

And after this classic, the Lady Bees put themselves in line for plenty of kudos. Swiger knew what it meant even despite the loss. After the game he was almost giddy when Hoover’s now four-time champion head coach Missy Smith told him the Bees were as good of a team as the Huskies had seen and gave them a battle they didn’t anticipate EFHS being capable of mounting.

Through four innings, this game was a scoreless gridlock, as East Fairmont ace Madison Corbin teamed with an unimpeachable group of EFHS fielders to counter Hoover’s pitching duo of Presley McGee and Delani Buckner. It was an illustration of the power of Corbin — a vicious competitor with the stuff from the mound to vault the Bees into a rarified air where they could stick with anyone.

Corbin outdid McGee, who was chased from the mound after EFHS’s batters dinged her for a couple of hits. But what a laughable luxury for Hoover to merely swap in Buckner, the owner of a microscopic 0.32 ERA entering the state tournament this season.

Buckner immediately threw on her cape and pulled the Huskies from a jam with two Bees’ runners on and no outs. She threw 10 of her first 11 pitches as strikes and shredded through the top of EFHS’s order with three-consecutive strikeouts to end the threat.

McGee finally erased the shutout in the fifth with a two-run single to right field, and with Buckner tossing fire, the Bees struggled to get runners in scoring position. They finally touched up Buckner for three hits in the final two frames, but couldn’t plate a runner.

4. Boys Cross Country: Class AA State Meet, Fairmont Senior vs. Winfield, Oct. 27, 2018

Fairmont Senior 70, Winfield 71

Pssh, cross country? You can only, at best, based on logistics of the course, see 1/5 of the race. And even what you do see, it’s just people running. All true, but let me propose this: In what other sport can a state title hang in limbo some 30-plus minutes after the action ends?

That’s what made this such a spectacle, so incredible, so emotionally gripping. Nobody knew who won between Fairmont Senior and Winfield, not me, not the runners, not the coaches, not the fans, heck not even the meet officials.

One could guess, or, in the case of mathematicians (don’t look at me), take a stab at the arithmetic, but even that was likely an exercise in futility; one would’ve had to chart every finisher and then go through the rigmarole of discarding individual-qualifying runners who were at-large participants in the meet and didn’t factor into team scoring.

Possible disqualifications across the board also loomed to toss a wrench into the equation.

Finally, the meet officials finalized the scoring and greeted awaiting FSHS coach Dayton McVicker in the doorway of the scorer’s building. There was a quick whispered back-and-forth between the two parties and then McVicker practically melted as his tear ducts swelled with joy. The Polar Bears had edged the Generals by a single point for the Class AA/A state championship.

It was FSHS’s No. 5 runner — Ethan Kincell — who ultimately pulled the Polar Bears ahead finishing 24th overall to make up 26 points when compared to the finish of Winfield’s No. 5 runner (Kincell going from FSHS’s No. 5 runner in the fall to a pair of third-place finishes in the 3200 and 1600 this spring in track is complete lunacy by the way. What a meteoric rise in the span of a few months).

Tavian Richardson led FSHS with a fifth-place finish to nab an all-state nod, but it was sophomores Logan Zuchelli (20th) and Tyler Hayes (21st) who oozed the clutch gene with runs that outdid expectations going in. None of it would’ve yielded gold, however, without a gutty swallowing of pride by senior Caleb Carlson, the lone four-year member of the Polar Bears.

Carlson will be the first to tell you his 14th-place finish dipped well below his expectations going in; after the race he hung his head in disgust. But in the race’s final stretch, where he could’ve checked out fully aware he wouldn’t finish where he wanted, Carlson rallied, surpassing three runners to steal crucial points for the Polar Bears. Turned out, Fairmont Senior needed every single one of them.

3. Boys Basketball: Class AA State Championship, Fairmont Senior vs. Chapmanville, March 16, 2019

Chapmanville 60, Fairmont Senior 46

Should it help or hurt this game’s spot in the rankings that these two teams were more of a lock to meet in the Class AA title game than the Golden State Warriors were to make the NBA Finals? (The Raptors have breathed new life into my Warriors vs. the field bet for the NBA title by the way).

Entering this game, per my unofficial research, the last time either Fairmont Senior or Chapmanville lost to an in-state opponent outside of one another was Feb. 4, 2017, when Chapmanville lost to Mingo Central in double overtime. Since then, these two squads are 115-0 versus the rest of West Virginia. The two teams faced each other in each of the prior two Class AA state title games — splitting them 1-1 — setting up a title game trilogy never before seen in 60 years of Class AA boys’ basketball.

Well, when you saw the immense talent, athleticism and size on the floor between these two squads within the disciplined offensive and defensive schemes deployed by coaches David Retton and Brad Napier, it was no surprise this was a matchup to break new ground.

The state player of the year in Jalen Bridges, plus three more fellow all-state first teamers and Division-I recruits in Zyon Dobbs, Obinna Anochili-Killen and Devin Collins. Toss in a handful of other dudes conditioned for high stakes basketball with potential college futures in Dasilas Jones, Andrew Shull and Philip Mullins, and whew, this one was bound to be a show.

Chapmanville’s sticky and switchy cadre of defenders, however, threatened to spoil any fourth-quarter climax as the Tigers halted Fairmont Senior’s normally-devastating transition game and splintered their half-court offense. Anochili-Killen, Chapmanville’s 6-foot-8 shot-blocking extraordinaire, was the fulcrum behind it all. He finished the game with eight blocks to go with 12 points and 12 rebounds.

Trailing 29-17 at halftime and shooting a mere 25.9 percent (7-of-27) from the floor, Fairmont Senior was on the verge of fading away amid Chapmanville’s might. But true to their greatness, the Polar Bears surged back. Spearheaded by Bridges, who led FSHS with 17 points and 11 rebounds, Fairmont Senior ripped off a 12-2 run to start the second half to set up a fitting finale.

The Tigers, though, had one last weapon to unveil, quelling FSHS’s brewing storm: Devin Collins. The gangly forward was the Tigers’ killer down the stretch, the backbreaking riddle of a mismatch the Polar Bears couldn’t solve. Collins scored on drives off the bounce and face-up jumper, while melding the two skills together to also earn nine free throw attempts. He finished the game with a team-high 17 points, including a 15-point second half flex.

2. Football: Class AA State Championship, Fairmont Senior vs. Bluefield, Nov. 30, 2018

Fairmont Senior 23, Bluefield 13

A competitive state title game rematch in the most popular sport to cap off an all-time dominant season by the Polar Bears. It feels like this game should be No. 1.

Everything about it beforehand, during and afterward felt cataclysmic, a triumph truly earned by Fairmont Senior with nothing given away by Bluefield. But the game did lack a sort of obvious narrative.

Fairmont Senior was on the brink of blowing the game open in the first half, going up 20-0 early in the second quarter — a fitting coda for such a dominant campaign had it held. But the Beavers drug their way back — a crucial end-of-half stop on a sack by Division-I recruit Sean Martin prevented FSHS from taking a 27-7 lead into the break — as the game steadily devolved into a physical rock fight. Yet, a gripping climax never truly unfolded in this one as a bumbled Bluefield handoff recovered by Fairmont Senior’s Rhett Heston pretty much extinguished the Beavers’ comeback.

There were plenty of notable performances across the board, with marque one delivered by game MVP’s Breeden Gilbert pile-driving, Mack-truck-style running en route to 115 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Heston added 121 yards of total offense to go with four tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery, while Zach Frazier had seven tackles and a pair of sacks, and Exavier Posey nabbed two interceptions.

Bluefield got a 100-yard day on the ground from Juice Edwards, and quarterback Chandler Cooper threw for 146 yards and two TDs versus an INT to steal team MVP honors in a heist over Martin, who was the Beavers’ best player with a game-high 15 tackles and a sack.

Ultimately, no one player nor one single unit — either team’s offense or defense — dominated the game. Fairmont Senior’s defense was probably closest, with TD plays of 59 and 42 yards making Bluefield’s offensive numbers look more respectable. FSHS’s own offense had Bluefield reeling early — with the Beavers in a pickle of whether or not to play nickel and how far to drop a deep safety — but the Polar Bears’ evolutionary passing attack was neutralized in comparison to the rest of the season, save for a game against Elkins played in a literal mud pit.

Quarterback and Kennedy Award winner Connor Neal still had his moments with 187 yards and a TD, but the game’s defining image was FSHS’s tempering of its opulent passing attack in favor of busting out some blue-collar smashmouth.

The team’s gritty ground attack was a true crowning moment for Gilbert — who’s transfer season was mostly ravaged by injuries — as well as an offensive line that was so often forgotten amidst the aerial artistry.

All season long, the line of Frazier, Magnus Sheets, Nate Kowalski, Lance Payton and Dominick Owens bent toward the talents of Neal, his weapons and the coaching staff’s air raid system, provided ace pass protection. But any offensive lineman will tell you, the run game is what satisfies the hunger within and what better time to let the big fellas eat.

1. Boys Soccer: Region I, Section 2 Championship, Fairmont Senior at East Fairmont, Oct. 20, 2018

East Fairmont 0, Fairmont Senior 0 (EFHS 4-3 PK shootout)

The lone county matchup to make the list after such contests took four out of the five spots on last year’s rankings, this all-timer of a game may be the pinnacle of a classic rivalry on the pitch that has been full of memorable battles through the years.

East Fairmont versus Fairmont Senior in boys’ soccer is the county’s best rivalry, a near guarantee to transform into a doozie you don’t want to miss. This same game –-the Region I, Section 2 championship—ranked third in my rankings last year, and their regular season matchups the past two seasons had cases to appear if not annually trumped by the do-or-die stakes of the sectional title game.

Just one of the Bees or Polar Bears advancing past this point every season feels like a travesty, a bad bite of sour grapes (especially this season when—all the credit to them—Wheeling Central had no business being the regional title game). But in hindsight, that dog-eat-dog world of West Virginia playoff soccer only adds to the glory of this yearly barnburner.

Already savage in its stakes, this year’s EFHS-FSHS title game matchup was even more ruthless in its play as the Bees and Polar Bears engaged in an unforgiving 100-minute stalemate in which the seal on the goal was never broken either way. The sheer angst in trying to even set up just a look at a possible score made the game an everlasting thrill ride, with so much hinging on every pass, every touch, every 50-50 ball.

The two teams got off just six shots combined in the first half and 22 total in the 100 minutes, with West owning a 13-9 advantage in the department. It shot totals were indicative of the Polar Bears’ control over the game from a purist’s viewpoint. FSHS racked up first touches, pried forth and then pounced on 50-50s in the midfield and spread the passing wealth on its attacks. But for all of the game’s axioms the Polar Bears abided by, the Bees’ specialty—its defense—extinguished them all.

A flexible, strength-in-numbers defense was the trump card for coach Tristan Wierbonski’s Bees all season, with EFHS capable of melding man-to-man and zonal principles into one uniform suffocating force. The backline of Evan Garrett, Trey Rogers, Austin Weaver and Blake Boyers was sturdy on its own as a synchronized quartet masterful at playing the angles, and goalkeeper Joel Morris was a heck of a failsafe. But when the Bees dropped midfielders Cole Peschl, Aiden Slusser and Kadin Maxey to reinforce its defense, East almost became two defensive units performing as one; they’d pressure up on ball handlers—stabbing at dribbles and muddling passing lanes—with a second layer of defenders lying in the wake ready to swarm on a moment’s notice.

Speedsters Corey Fluharty and Lance Cerullo still posed a scoring threat via hasty counters and towering longballs threat even when the Bees dropped into their shell.

But Fairmont Senior’s defense was impenetrable in its own right despite a more traditional scheme. Outside defenders John Davis and Cale Beaty were workers on the flanks, making upfield advancement tedious, and when the Bees did breakthrough, centerbacks Seth Stilgenbauer and Isaac Branch were the perfect saviors.

One hundred gut check minutes led to five kicks apiece in the penalty kick shootout, where Morris and Maxey lifted the Bees with a save and conversion in succession. The drama of Maxey’s final shot still hangs above East-West Stadium. I can still see FSHS goalkeeper Angelo Sabatino’s last-gasp lunge to stop the ball as it just trickled over the goal line.

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

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