FAIRMONT — Since the permitted return of high school sports last month, there may not be a team in Marion County that has been more committed to the precautionary measures and restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic than the Fairmont Senior High boys’ soccer team. There also may not be a team in Marion County with more at stake entering the 2020-21 sports season.
The 2019 state champion Polar Bears, after all, have a title defense to mount and plenty of ammunition to do it with it.
“We’ve noticed that we have a lot of talent top to bottom,” said Fairmont Senior coach Darrin Paul. “There are going to be tough decisions for us (as a coaching staff) this year in terms of who is in the top 11, who’s in the top 18, the top 22. The nice thing we’ve noticed about that is when we’re doing small sided — or we even did a full-field scrimmage the other night — it’s very competitive, and we like that.”
Take a quick overview of the defending champion Polar Bears and Paul’s evaluation leans considerably more toward truth than hyperbole, for Fairmont Senior, on the heels of last year’s 18-3-5 season and magical run to the Class AA state title in November, has graduated just three players who were key to the 2019 squad. Eight of the 2019 team’s 11 starters are due to return, marquee names dot the lineup at every level — rising junior Bubby Towns at the top and rising senior all-state brothers Jonas and Isaac Branch in the middle and in the back — the invaluable team cohesion from last year is already bubbling once again, and the championship equity remains thoroughly ingrained.
“There’s not much change we have to work on,” said Isaac Branch, a 2019 all-state first teamer at center back. “Yeah, we lost a few key players, but we definitely have players who are filling those spots pretty well, and they’ll adjust even more as time goes on to get better where they’re at.”
“Nothing has really changed,” said Jonas Branch, an all-state first team midfielder last season. “We definitely all feel (the chemistry) still. We’ve all played with each other before and before the season even started, we all tried to get each other together.”
That synergy from the Polar Bears last season was touted all year long by the team as the cardinal trait that propelled the program back to state championship glory following three top tier seasons in 2016, ‘17 and ‘18 that all flamed out in the sectional final against county rival East Fairmont. Paul emphasized it all throughout the preseason, reading articles on the subject and then implementing extended means to foster greater team bonding and connection.
Rediscovering that chemistry as well as shaking off the cobwebs related to “feel” parts of the game, such as touch, positioning and instincts, has been at the forefront of the team’s three-week period thus far, Paul said, but overall, the Polar Bears are on the fast track to start strong when, or if, the season starts.
“I’d say we’re a little bit ahead from where we were last season at this time,” Paul said on Monday. “We, as a coaching staff, talked and if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
“We’re really just trying to polish up in every part of the game,” said Jonas Branch.
The Polar Bears, as a whole, are primed to enter the season as a solid group, dripping with familiarity.
Towns and the Branches are a Big Three that can go toe-to-toe with any trio in the state from a comparison standpoint. Rising senior Nicky Keefover and rising sophomores Nate Flower and Kaelen Armstrong should also be back alongside Jonas Branch in the midfield, giving the Polar Bears a full returning quartet there.
Isaac Branch is the defensive stronghold on the backline. Fellow 2019 all-state center back Seth Stilgenbauer’s graduation has left a void alongside him, but rising senior Cale Beatty will likely fill that spot as he kicks inside to center back from outside defender. That Branch-Beatty defensive interior already proved its merit in the biggest moment of last season after Stilgenbauer went down with an ankle sprain in the first half of the team’s overtime state title victory versus Robert C. Byrd.
Stilgenbauer’s injury that day also shined a light on the performance of returning starter Carson Mundell as one of the team’s outside defenders, with the opposite defender spot up in the air for this season. Rising junior and 2019 backup Eli Day is in line to assume the goalkeeping spot as the team’s last line of defense in the wake of Angelo Sabatino’s graduation this spring.
“It’s never too early — and I’ve learned this from (assistant coach) Jimmy (DeNardi’s) teams — to start harping on being good defensively,” Paul said. “We’ll be harping on it every day until the end of the year because defense is always the toughest thing to coach with kids; it’s easy to teach them how to go score, how to give runs, but teaching them to be disciplined and play good defense, they have to have a passion for it. We just don’t have 22 Isaac Branches who love defense, so we have to get some of those kids to really (commit) to that, and so far, we’re seeing some promise.”
Along with the graduations of Stilgenbauer and Sabatino as two linchpins of the team’s 2019 defense, the Polar Bears have also graduated starting forward Billy Tobin from last year’s squad.
“We think those are going to be the toughest shoes to fill honestly because you have put someone up there beside Bubby who will work well with him,” Paul said. “Billy did a great job last year of knowing when to go and how to support Bubby.” In that vein, Tobin and Towns were an ideal pairing. Towns is a ball handling dynamo, a maestro in space who can create opportunities on a whim. Tobin, on the other hand, was a grinder, a non-flashy worker who tilted defenses and scavenged scoring chances by simply always playing hard and committing to runs and rebound pursuits.
There will be an open competition if you will for the spot next to Towns. Paul, DeNardi and the FSHS staff could always move an incumbent midfielder up to forward, especially with 2019 rotational middies William Burns and Ro Jones also due back, but there may be multiple freshmen who sneak in for substantial minutes as well according to Paul, with the Polar Bears bringing in a talented five-player class.
“Those five kids can all contribute in one way or another,” Paul said. “They all know how to play and they’ve stepped right in. You can’t even tell they’re freshmen.”
“But Jimmy and I have always said we use the 20-game season to figure it out,” Paul said. “You don’t have to do it right now, you just have to do it by October.”