BECKLEY – Fairmont Senior High coach Darrin Paul knew it. The Polar Bears’ entire roster pra…
BECKLEY – Fairmont Senior High battled to finish its season-long championship mission and Robert C. Byrd clutched to its years-long dream of finally winning the big one as the Polar Bears and Eagles went into sudden-death overtime to decide what was already a guaranteed all-timer for the Class AA state crown on Saturday at Paul Cline Memorial Sports Complex.
Then in an instant, an 80-plus minute struggle for the Class AA state championship, was reduced to a single moment as Fairmont Senior sophomore forward Bubby Towns etched his name into state championship soccer lore when he let loose on a golden goal that broke the 1-1 tie and lifted Fairmont Senior to the Class AA state championship. The Polar Bears won 2-1.
“My head went blank for a second,” said Towns, “and then I was like, ‘Wait, we just won.’”
“I’m not gonna lie (before overtime), I looked at the huddle and told the boys we needed to pick it up and play aggressive, and then the last thing I did was I looked at him and said, ‘Stay high, you’re going to get one and you’re going to bury it,’” said Fairmont Senior coach Darrin Paul. “He buried it. He was looking for the corner, he hung it for the corner, and he buried it.”
Towns, whose game winner was his ninth goal of the postseason, nearly hunted down a golden goal on two other occasions in the overtime as he launched a pair of shots from the top of the box RCB goalkeeper Cam Clark just barely got to for saves. But after FSHS flipped the field on the Eagles with a play ahead to Towns, he wasn’t about to let a third look pass he and the Polar Bears by as he uncorked a powerful shot to the left corner that whizzed past Clark and gave Fairmont Senior its first state title since 2015.
“I had a lot of opportunities and I was just thinking myself, ‘One has to go, one has to go. Keep shooting, keep putting them on target and one has to go,’” said Towns. “I saw an opening in the bottom left and I just hit it hard as I could and it went in.”
It was an epic finish to a Class AA title game that was otherwise much less majestic and far more cutthroat, with the Eagles and Polar Bears fighting to just survive a contest that was filled with high-speed collisions, shoves to the back, hip checks and arm bars.
The physical style of play amounted to 24 fouls, two yellow cards, a handful of injuries and dozens of stoppages that sapped the game of any hints of rhythmic back-and-forth play for two teams playing their second game in less than a 24-hour span. It was a true gut check, a war of attrition that would crown the last man standing,
“It was a game of who got tired first, who’s going to give up first,” said RCB star senior forward Khori Miles, who tallied his 149th career goal in the 71st minute just to get the Eagles to overtime. “And in the end, we just ended up giving up a goal, and that was our mistake.”
“We knew we had to keep fighting,” said FSHS junior captain midfielder Jonas Branch, who spent the majority of the postseason dealing with the after effects of a high-ankle sprain he got against Frankfort in the sectional semifinals.
“I mean it’s the state championship game, you gotta play the whole 80 minutes or even more as it was today. We just had to keep playing stay mentally there because some of our players started freaking out. But then we all talked as a team and all got it together and finished off the game,” Branch said.
The contact-heavy constraints of play left fans, players and coaches on both sides exasperated, but it also dealt FSHS a crippling blow less than 10 minutes in when a collision between Miles and FSHS captain senior centerback Seth Stilgenbauer left Stilgenbauer hobbled and on the sidelines unable to put pressure on his leg.
The injury splintered Fairmont Senior’s backline, the team’s spine all season, forcing outside defender Cale Beatty to kick inside to centerback alongside junior team captain and defensive rock Isaac Branch, while reserve William Burns took Beatty’s spot on the outside opposite Carson Mundell. It was a borderline death knell with the Polar Bears trying to combat the speed and overall dynamism of Miles.
“We just planned going into it that we weren’t going to be able to shut them out because Khori is too good, but we knew if we ourselves could get two or three we’d be state champs, and the defense held true to that,” Paul said. “I’m gonna be honest, Isaac Branch should not have played today because of a hip flexor, so our plan going into the day was to pull him out every 10 minutes and rotate William in and push Cale into the middle, but that went out the window, what, seven minutes into the game. So for William to step up and play the way he did and Cale play the way he did, the backline played tremendous.”
“Cale, I think he deserved defensive player of the game today. He played his heart out and stepped up when Seth went out, and that’s what it takes,” said Isaac Branch, who dazzled with plenty of his own dribble poke aways and standard first touches out of the air.
“We just had to connect passes together, which we didn’t a lot until the second half of the game,” said Miles.
“We just didn’t control the ball enough,” said RCB coach Ron Williams. “Our passes were off, and I think we had some guys coming off the bench who weren’t ready for that kind of atmosphere. I don’t know, it just didn’t click in the first half.”
Fairmont Senior outshot RCB 5-3 in the first half—although the Eagles finished the game with a 9-8 shots advantage and 6-4 lead in corner kicks—and nabbed an early 1-0 lead as RCB grappled with its mini malaise.
Towns’ brilliance was once again at the forefront of the score, this time as a facilitator. Drawing defenders while handling on the left flank, Towns played a lead pass all the way across the field to the right side, where junior Nicky Keefover just barely beat an RCB defender to it before sending a shot opposite to finish off the sequence.
“I don’t know how I did that,” Towns said with a laugh of the highlight-reel assist. “I was trying to get it to Nick, but not that perfectly; I tried to just put it over the top, but it had curve on it and just worked out perfectly.”
FSHS’s midfield of Jonas Branch, Billy Tobin and Kaelen Armstrong earned 50-50 ball wins, while challenging defensively and connecting offensively to harness a considerable first-half possession advantage, but RCB shifted that phase of the game in the second half, with Miles and junior Blake Meighen revving up the Eagles’ attacks.
FSHS keeper Angelo Sabatino, who had five saves, fended off the majority that threatened, but in the 71st minute, Miles cracked the code when he gathered possession in a pocket of space dribbling right before uncorking a shot back to his left for the goal against the grain.
“I felt like I could get by the defense,” Miles said, “and on that goal, it was just instinct. I wasn’t even looking, but I just went across the keeper and it ended up going in.”
“I wouldn’t say we played our best half in the second half and we let that one goal in on a little mistake,” Isaac Branch said, “but none of us gave up after that. We held our heads high and we battled.”
The Polar Bears survived to overtime and then kept on ticking after a pair of RCB shots and corner kicks in the extra session to set up the moment for Towns’ goal and another state championship for the title town on Loop Park, which now has four state championships this fall season.
“The pressure this week has been immense, I’m just telling you…you have the AD and the principal come and say, ‘All right, you’re next,’” Paul said. “And these kids, it doesn’t phase them. It’s going to be a fun week at Fairmont Senior back home.”
“Year of the Bear,” Towns said, smiling.