FAIRMONT — This time last year, Fairmont Senior coach Dayton McVicker wasn’t reserved in assessing the Polar Bears’ status in the running world: They were the Class AA title favorite in both his and his team’s top runners’ eyes.

A few months later at the state meet at Cabell Midland, the Polar Bears hoisted the Class AA championship trophy in one of the most tense title chases in state history. The team beat out Winfield by a single point for the crown.

Heading into the 2019 season, however, there’s a sense from the Polar Bears their triumph has been forgotten. The span of eight months time and four more state championships won by Fairmont Senior, including titles in sports such as football and girls’ basketball, has buried last year’s title in the public eye.

And with FSHS losing its top two runners from 2018 to graduation in Tavian Richardson and Caleb Carlson — who will run in college at West Liberty and Davis & Elkins, respectively — there’s even a tinge within the smaller, but more knowledgeable running community that the Polar Bears are due for substantial regression.

“I know a lot of people, both within our program and the running community, and the big assumption is that Fairmont lost their top two runners and they’re gonna go down,” McVicker said. “These guys take that personally.”

Maybe that’s in-house posturing by McVicker and the Polar Bears, a self-constructed trope to add a little extra something that makes 95-degree August runs more bearable or 20-degree January jogs more tenable, but the on-paper outlook in 2019 based off last season does offer a reasonable inclination for a drop-off from outsiders.

“I think it will take a better effort than Winfield had last year to beat us this year,” McVicker said before walking the statement back a bit. “I mean we’re definitely beatable. Winfield and Bridgeport for all I know could be running very well too right now; I hate this time of year, because you get confident in yourself, but you don’t know what everybody else is doing.

“But I think this will be the best team we put up if we can stay healthy.”

Teams don’t typically win a state title, lose their top two collegiate-level runners, and then suddenly become even better. Well, teams don’t typically blow away the customary rate and degree of improvement across its entire roster to the extent Fairmont Senior has either.

The seeds of evidence were there during track season in the spring when FSHS’s deep long-distance crew was a staple behind their Class AA state runner-up finish, but whether running circles took note and crunched the numbers of how Fairmont Senior may stack up this fall is a question mark.

“I’m not entirely sure,” said senior Ethan Kincell, FSHS’s projected top runner, of whether or not fellow title contenders were aware of the Polar Bears’ wide-scale progression, “but if they’re not, they’ll find out.”

The steady year-by-year rise of the Polar Bears has become a theme since McVicker took over the program before the 2016 season, fast-tracking its way to a state championship in just three years time. But going into this season, in the face of substantial graduation losses and the ensuing expected decline that comes with it, the opportunity is there for the Polar Bears to vault into the holy grail of programs as an annual contender.

The truly elite programs don’t wax and wane based on the depth of a single class or merits of one or two elite exceptional runners, they instead fortify themselves year in and year out through the fostered intangibles of the roster. Runners ascend because of their inner drive and dedication to the grind, and the roster itself cultivates an atmosphere of accountability from runner to runner through genuine aspiration and friendship.

“I try to run with everybody as much as I can because I want them to be where we are,” said junior Tyler Hayes, FSHS’s likely No. 2 runner on Kincell’s heels for the top spot. “I mean, I love being Nos. 1 and 2, but I would love if they were up there with us.”

“I’m all for people challenging each other,” added Kincell. “I like going out there and setting up a good environment for my teammates to run in and I like that they set up a good environment for me to run in. I don’t think I would be this good if I didn’t have the teammates that allow me to be this good.”

Kincell, Hayes and last season’s No. 3 runner Logan Zuchelli have taken the reigns of a player-driven ownership of the team, McVicker says, where competitiveness and compatability co-exists runner to runner spurring individual and teamwide achievement on a larger scale.

“Really from Day 1, as in right after the state track meet, they’ve been really focused and on top of one another,” said McVicker, who joked he heard the runners say they simply don’t need him anymore.

Case in point, a week after track season ended, Kincell, Hayes and Zuchelli called a sort of players-only meeting, McVicker said, to set the stage for summer leading into the fall season.

“They got everybody together and drew out and shared all the goals they have individually and as a team,” McVicker said. “It was over an hour long.”

The collective governorship and goal setting established the tone for the summer which carried on the evolution the roster started in the transition from cross country last fall to track in the spring. Count the mileage and the check times and there’s universal progression from the roster.

Kincell has become the rosiest archetype in the department, almost deifying the progression timeline in the past calendar year; every month it seems his performance catapults to another level. He’s gone from his team’s No. 5-6 runner last August to one of the top runners in the entire state entering this season.

“I stopped putting limits on him,” said McVicker of Kincell, who finished 24th in the 2018 state cross country meet before taking third place in the 1600 and 3200 meters at the state track meet seven months later. “I don’t even want to guess what he could do because he’s progressing so much faster than the average.”

Part of that rapid rise stems from Kincell not running cross country until his junior year, creating a more normalized bump based on an uptick in training and understanding akin to eighth graders making the jump to a high school program, McVicker said. But behind it still is the matured mentality and amped up commitment from Kincell in the more nuanced areas, such as core strength, recovery methods and diet.

“I’d say thinking about running as to what to do, I spend about five hours a day,” said Kincell, “from ice bathing, doing core, working out, running, all that stuff.”

Kincell may be the glowing example of just how much difference those elements outside of sheer mileage can make, but it’s a roster-wide phenomenon, especially between the top three of Kincell, Hayes and Zuchelli, who McVicker said all routinely logged 60-mile weeks this summer, approaching the max ideal mileage within his training program.

“I feel like everything I do is based on running,” said Hayes, who’s itinerary mirrors Kincell’s. “I’ll turn down hanging out with friends because I’m like, ‘Oh, I have that workout tomorrow so I can’t be out late.”

“Especially whenever you get into a position where you’re trying to run really low times, all of those little things start to matter a lot,” Kincell said. “Like changing my diet specifically, I feel more energized everyday to go out and run. Doing core, I feel significantly better on all my runs, especially on hilly runs.”

“You just feel healthier,” Hayes said.

Kincell, Hayes and Zuchelli, three runners ruthlessly competitive with each other but also supportive of one another, McVicker said, gives FSHS a top three to rival the Winfields and Bridgeports of Class AA. But just like when Kincell sopped up 26 points worth of ground on Winfield as FSHS’s No. 5 runner to become the difference in last year’s state meet, the power and potential of a team’s depth matters.

McVicker said the likes of senior Alex Morris, junior Elijah Hannig and sophomore Jasper Brown, who will likely fill those last two scoring spots most races, have actually impressed him the most with where they are currently versus what he expected.

Brown came on toward the latter portion of last season and Hayes and Kincell said he’s been working hard all summer. And both Hayes and McVicker touted what a healthy Morris could do for the Polar Bears after a shin injury pretty much cost him last season when he was poised to become the team’s No. 3 or 4 runner.

“Alex has always been super reliable,” said McVicker, who relayed a tasty nugget that Morris has actually scored in more races in his career than anyone else on the roster.

According to McVicker, nine of the Top 15 finishers from last year’s state meet minus the 2018 seniors are from Fairmont Senior, Bridgeport and Winfield, with all three schools having three apiece in that group of nine runners. But after those Top 3 on each team, there’s a considerable drop-off to the projected Nos. 4 and 5 runners heading into this season.

“We know whoever fills that gap will probably come out on top. We’ve been vocal about that,” McVicker said.

From the Top 3 to trickling down to the Nos. 4 and 5 and beyond, McVicker and the Polar Bears are already sizing themselves up against the rest of the state as they defend their title. McVicker didn’t expect FSHS to be in the thick of 2019 title contention in the aftermath of last season’s state championship and rival teams may not even now.

But Fairmont Senior has proven limitations are just an illusion.

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