FAIRMONT — Opposing coaches and players haven’t really cared about the overt “but” looming over their revelment in the face of victory. And, quite frankly, veteran Fairmont Senior coach David Retton hasn’t cared about that same “but” either during the dissatisfaction of defeat.
Eight games into the 2019-20 season and Retton’s Polar Bears have dropped to 2-6, with those six victorious opponents routinely touting the significance of what a win over the Fairmont Senior program means to their own program in the postgame aftermath. That sort of beaming pride is a reasonable sentiment considering the Polar Bears have played in five straight Class AA state championship games and crushed so many hapless foes along the way.
But then there’s the “but”.
The Polar Bears of this year aren’t of the same makeup they’ve been in the past half-decade. The graduation of an all-time senior class in May that included starter Patrick Laxton, all-stater Dasilas Jones, and current D-I players Zyon Dobbs and Jalen Bridges stripped Fairmont Senior of its world-class dynamism. Everyone knew the program’s outlook would be drastically altered this season, but perhaps no one quite understood to what degree.
With six losses in its first eight games Fairmont Senior has already accrued nearly half as many defeats this season as it had in the past five years combined, with the program going a ludicrous 125-14 overall from 2014-15 to 2018-19. The offense has dipped to just 40.6 points a game on 36 percent shooting after averaging an absurd 84.3 points a game on 55 percent shooting in 25 regular season games in 2018-19. Their turnovers are up by nearly a third compared to last season and the defense is allowing about 1.5 more points a game despite a vastly slower pace.
All of those numbers were bound to undergo a significant dip this season compared to last season considering the graduation losses, but there was a prevailing thought the Polar Bears’ championship residue, top-tier program DNA, winning attitude and overall intangibles could lift them yet.
“There are certain things about being successful that are going to be that way forever. Eighty years ago and 80 years into the future it’s about out-working people, out-smarting people — that’s not going to change,” Retton said before the season. “I would hope there’s some carry over in how to prepare, how to work, what the expectations are and how we do things.”
Eight games in, however, and Fairmont Senior may be a test case in terms of the limitations of what can be gained from such characteristics. Retton has never once chastised his players’ work ethic or attitudes throughout the team’s early-season struggles. Instead, he’s praised both unprompted. The Polar Bears’ troubles aren’t the byproduct of some sense of entitlement, selfishness, or self-pity across the roster, but rather a new team trying to find itself while grappling with a mass exodus of talent.
“These guys, they want to be good and they want to work,” Retton said after a loss to North Marion on Jan. 6, “but we’re not doing the things necessary at this time to be successful.”
The players have been willing to overhaul the team’s play style and grind to bring out that style’s best version, but the actual on-court performance hasn’t come to fruition thus far. Retton’s has slowed the team’s pace to a crawl — even holding the ball for lengthy stretches to limit a game’s possessions — repeatedly running through their half-court offense on one end and contracting their defense on the other to wall off dribble drives and cuts to the hoop. The idea is clear: Run opposing defenses ragged with hasty ball movement and screening until an efficient shot manifests and then test the patience of the opposing offense with gritty and connected defense that stonewalls any penetration.
“With the players last year, we could run the floor a lot more, we could go 1-on-1 off the dribble, but now we’re going to have to slow the game down,” FSHS senior forward Trey Washenitz said in the preseason. “We’re gonna have to play as a team more.”
But Fairmont Senior’s half-court offensive tempo has short-circuited due to delayed decision-making and stalled player movement, leading to contested shots and turnovers. And the defense’s conservative schematics — while sturdy on their own merit — haven’t juiced up transition chances via steals and runouts against disordered offenses.
“We make two-three passes and shoot it, two-three passes and shoot it,” Retton said. “We have to do a better job of moving the defense. I do believe our guys will make shots, but they have to shoot the right ones and we’re not shooting the right ones because we’re too impatient.”
At their core, the Polar Bears have to be a sum-of-their parts offense sans the colossal individual talent they once had across their lineup. Offense almost has to be manufactured within the system — hard cuts, feints to set up screens, quick attack-and-kick sequences, little split-second advantages that when stitched together quickly pry open a larger one.
Right now, though, the offense is essentially a one-man band in junior forward Jaelin Johnson. Johnson, who’s delivering on a hypothesized breakout season, is accounting for over half of the team’s scoring at 20.9 points a game and is the only high-volume shooter (over 10 attempted field goals) hitting at an above 40 percent clip at 51.3. He leads the team in practically every statistical category and remains a defensive menace who guards the opponent’s top threat.
“Right now that’s where our scoring is coming from and everybody knows it,” Retton said of Johnson following the loss to North Marion. “It’s not rocket science. So we have to do more of it, but we have to do a better job of moving the defense.”
Without an uptick in execution, shot-making, and, according to Retton, confidence from the rest of the roster, Johnson’s life is bound to get harder. Defenses are already starting to stray further from FSHS’s other players to clog up Johnson’s driving lanes and swamp his post-ups. He has the size and athleticism to rip through defenses still, and his balletic body control and increased skill level allows him to squirt between even tiny cracks via step-throughs and sidesteps. But Johnson needs relief, he needs Fairmont Senior’s other players to play with a similar swagger, a similar belief in themselves.
“I think a great part of it truly is the mindset,” Retton said following the team’s New Year’s Eve loss to Bridgeport.
Maybe an additional one or two made shots here and there from each player springboards their confidence and their level of play. Perhaps an eased up schedule from the hellacious man-to-man defenses of Shady Spring, Wheeling Central, Bridgeport and Robert C. Byrd grease the wheels of the offense. Whatever the case, the Polar Bears’ character, from coaching staff to players, will spur them to see the season through and work to find the best version of themselves.
“Every year as a coach,” Retton said, “you hope by the end of the year you’ve maximized everything a player can give and become and also, more importantly, maximize what your team becomes.”
Email Bradley Heltzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.