BECKLEY – There he was, in the wake of a spectacular individual effort, sprawled out on the …
BECKLEY – There was the biting cold, a squandered early lead, and most formidable of all, a Winfield squad loaded with firepower that hadn’t lost to a Class AA team since falling to Nitro in the Region IV title game in 2017.
But none of that could derail the building steam behind Fairmont Senior’s mission to return to the Class AA state championship game for the first time since winning it all in 2015, as the Polar Bears used a go-ahead goal by sophomore Bubby Towns in the 70th minute to upset the favored Generals and clinch a spot in today’s Class AA-A state title game against 2016 and 2017 state runners-up Robert C. Byrd.
“I thought the biggest thing we did today is what we’ve done all year: We were resilient,” said Darrin Paul, Fairmont Senior coach.
The Polar Bears (17-3-5) played Friday in their first state tournament game since 2015.
“Everyone worked their tails off, and I’m just proud of the group – they battled hard today,” Paul said.
Towns, who now has eight goals in four FSHS victories this postseason, sprung open on a run down the middle on his game-winning score where he was hit with a through ball in stride from freshman Nate Flower, who won a 50-50 ball to kickstart the attack against a scrambled Winfield backline. Towns gathered the pass in the box with a step on a pair of Winfield defenders and then buried the shot to the net’s opposite corner in a 1-on-1 showdown with Winfield goalkeeper Nathan Lanham.
“We had maybe one (defensive) breakdown and one way offsides,” said Winfield coach Mike Foster, whose Generals (17-2-4) rode their defensive chops all season, including in the Generals’ regular season matchup with Fairmont Senior where the two teams played to a scoreless draw.
“I saw a lane and screamed as loud as I could for Nate to play me the ball. He got a tap through and I was a good two feet onsides,” Towns said. “Then I saw the far post and put it there.”
As Winfield’s players clamored for an offside from the officials in the immediacy of the goal, the officials explained a partial deflection by a Generals defender kept Towns onside, giving Fairmont Senior a 2-1 advantage after a back-and-forth second half saw both teams mount attacks in volume.
“We knew we needed to come out a lot stronger and I think we did that,” FSHS junior centerback captain Isaac Branch said of the second half after a Winfield goal in the 34th minute spoiled a 1-0 Fairmont Senior lead to tie the game at halftime. “We played with more heart in the second half, our touches were a little bit better, and we started moving the ball better. Stuff started to open up and that’s why (Bubby) got his goal.”
“We knew it was going to take 80 minutes against Winfield. They’re not the defending champs for nothing,” Paul said. “Even in the last 10 minutes, (Isaac Branch) is dinged up, Jonas (Branch) is dinged up, Bubby’s dropped down from the forward position playing center mid…it was a team effort.”
Fairmont Senior gave itself an early 1-0 cushion, however, when the Polar Bears again converted on another set piece in the 15th minute off a corner kick. Jonas Branch teed up the entry from the left corner and sent a curving shot into the box that went untouched until clanging off the far post, where it caromed into a crowd before FSHS senior forward Billy Tobin bopped it home for the rebound score.
“The plan was to get a head on it, but that didn’t work out that well,” said Isaac Branch, one of his brothers go-to targets on the backside of such entries. “But we followed it like our coaches have always taught us too and that’s why Billy got one.”
“We had lots of opportunities and a couple right there in the first few minutes of the game, we just didn’t finish,” said Foster, whose Generals outshot FSHS for the game 8-5 in terms of on-goal looks. “Then they got that nice corner kick there.”
But just before half, Winfield knotted the game at 1-1 when star forward Braxton Vanscoy bolted down a long ball pass, gathered in possession after a couple of quick, contested touches to get past the FSHS backline and buried a shot in a 1-on-1 with FSHS goalkeeper Angelo Sabatino in the 34th minute.
Then out of the halftime break, the game turned into a firestorm of attacks both ways as the field flipped back and forth like a pendulum as both the Polar Bears and Generals badgered the opposing backlines for the go-ahead score.
Winfield tallied three shots on goal in the half’s first five minutes, once off of one of their ridiculous throw-ins into the 18-yard box, which resembled free kick entries more so than throw-ins considering the depth and height of the ball’s flight, and then two more times after countering an FSHS attack. But on all three occasions, Sabatino was there to turn away the Generals, a theme that sustained for the full 80 minutes, with the star senior goalkeeper turning in a top performance. Sabatino finished the game with seven saves, including several that were highlight reel material with Sabatino scrunching low to pounce on rollers and elevating with full extension to tip away pigeonholed shots at the goal’s crossbar.
“They were putting pressure on me with shots down the middle,” said Sabatino. “I had to block both sides of the net.”
Even with Sabatino’s play flirting with its ultimate peak, Fairmont Senior’s backline still had to muster periods of its own heroics to deter Winfield outside of Vanscoy’s lone goal.
Isaac Branch swooped in on countless occasions to play long balls out of the air while intercepting through balls like a trawl. Fellow captain centerback Seth Stilgenbauer derailed plenty of Winfield’s carries diagonally along the 18-yard box, while also arriving to a handful of through balls in the nick of time. And outside defenders Cale Beatty and Carson Mundell rarely let attacks get by on the flanks unfettered.
Winfield’s backline, headed by centerbacks Richard Smith and Jacob Verno, fended off the Polar Bears in similar fashion, with Fairmont Senior playing wide to Flower in volume, while Jonas Branch sprinkled in parcels of his own ball handling expertise in the middle and Towns lurked atop the formation.
“We knew from playing them the first time and watching them on film we could exploit their left side and we did that the whole first half,” Paul said. “We got Nate, Bubby and Jonas working that triangle and got some good opportunities.”
Eventually, that Flower-Towns combo cobbled together the game-winning sequence, sending the Polar Bears to the Class AA state championship game against Big 10 rival Robert C. Byrd with kickoff slated for approximately 12:15 p.m. The Eagles and Polar Bears tied 3-3 in their lone regular season matchup on Oct. 17 in Nutter Fort.
“Class AA down here I think is wide open; if you look at the scores, all four teams are evenly matched and I think this game today showed that,” said Paul, whose Polar Bears tied Winfield and Robert C. Byrd and lost to Charleston Catholic 2-1 in the regular season. “It was funny because the boys were just talking out here (after the win) and we said, ‘OK, we know who we want to play,’ because we know how we match up against those two teams.”