BECKLEY – There he was, in the wake of a spectacular individual effort, sprawled out on the turf at East-West Stadium stomaching an all-time gut punch.
The fact he even lie in such a position and had crafted such a heartbreaking moment was a testament to his expertise to begin with, but that surely didn’t soften the blow for Fairmont Senior’s then-junior goalkeeper Angelo Sabatino.
With the Polar Bears fighting to stay alive in an all-time, 100-minute scoreless classic against rival East Fairmont in the 2018 sectional title game, Sabatino was Fairmont Senior’s last hope as he crouched in front of a teed up penalty kick by East’s Kadin Maxey trying to prolong a deciding penalty kick shootout. Maxey approached and fired. Sabatino guessed right.
He lunged to his right full extension and got a few fingertips on Maxey’s shot to deflect it. But as the ball ricocheted off the tips of his gloves, it spun wayward, edging the goal line by a hair, propelling the Bees to the regional championship and sending the Polar Bears home.
“Some of the guys talked about (that game) all offseason,” said Fairmont Senior coach Darrin Paul. “But last year was last year.”
Fast forward a year later from that sectional title game, and there was Fairmont Senior—after having avenged that 2018 sectional loss to the Bees with a monumental 4-2 sectional title victory over East and then a 4-3 overtime regional win over Wheeling Central—back in Beckley as a Class AA state tournament qualifier for the first time since 2015. And there was Sabatino, back in the net as a senior for the Polar Bears and once again their best hope to keep their season alive.
The underdogs in a Class AA field that otherwise featured 2018 returning state tourney qualifiers Winfield, Robert C. Byrd and Charleston Catholic, Paul said the Polar Bears would need to play like the best defense in the state if they were going to hoist the Class AA trophy like they did back in 2015. That meant Sabatino and Fairmont Senior’s experienced backline of Isaac Branch, Seth Stilgenbauer, Cale Beatty and Carson Mundell would have to be dynamite.
Fairmont Senior’s semifinal opponent, a 19-1-4 Winfield squad that hadn’t loss to a Class AA school since 2017, put that defensive quest to the ultimate test on Friday at the Paul Cline Memorial Sports Complex.
The Generals showed their offensive spunk, pestering Fairmont Senior’s defense with long balls and through balls to speedsters atop their formation, most notably star forward Braxton Vanscoy. They pried forth five corner kick opportunities, booted a handful of free kick entries, and weaponized a dozen or so of their patented skyscraping throw-ins.
But in spite of all that heavy artillery from the Generals, Sabatino was unmoored and undeterred. He laid out horizontally and skied vertically, repeatedly turning away golden Winfield scoring chances en route to seven career-defining saves, multiple of which were highwire acts.
“They were putting pressure on me, taking shots down the middle,” Sabatino said, “but I just had to block both sides of the net.”
With the Polar Bears bursting out to a 1-0 lead in the early going, Sabatino ensured it stayed that way with his first big save of the game when he halted a Winfield shot in a 1-on-1 stare down scenario. Then to close the first half, with the game tied 1-1 after a Winfield goal in the 34th minute, Sabatino ensured the Generals didn’t notch a second back breaking score in the first 40’s final minutes. He warded off a Winfield corner kick, then leaped to challenge a shot that dinged off the crossbar before landing and immediately scarfing up the Generals’ rebound shot.
In the opening five minutes of the second half, Winfield brought out the big guns, launching three on-goal shot attempts. But Sabatino was there to thwart them all, including back-to-back saves in a less-than-30-second span.
Then in the 64th minute, Sabatino, on his final key play of the game, unfurled perhaps his best work. Winfield pinged the ball to-and-fro accordion-style, playing it from the inside to the outside and then back to the inside. The tic-tac-toe passing manufactured a clean shot from the center of the 18-yard box for the Generals, but Sabatino lunged to his left and knocked away the shot for yet another save.
As he lie on the turf afterward, his arms outstretched, there was no heartbreak to swallow this time, only triumph to celebrate, no second guessing to be had, only applause to accept.