Fairmont Senior wins back-to-back titles with victory over Patriots

·8 min read

Dec. 4—WHEELING — The final outing of the 2021 football season lived up to its billing Friday night, as the Fairmont Senior Polar Bears and Independence Patriots went blow-for-blow before a fervent crowd at Wheeling Island Stadium for the WVSSAC Class-AA State Championship.

In the heavyweight contest between the defending champion Polar Bears and undefeated Patriots, Fairmont Senior ultimately prevailed 21-12.

The repeat effort was fueled by 114 rushing yards and two touchdowns from eventual State Championship MVP Germaine Lewis, and a defense that bent but seldom broke while holding Independence to 12 first downs.

"Our offense stayed the course," Fairmont Senior head coach Nick Bartic said. "We had drives, made mistakes, but we bounced back. The defense didn't get rattled when they made some big plays. Then the third phase of the game, special teams, was big."

While Lewis and Independence's Atticus Goodson each finished with gaudy stat lines — 167 net yards for Lewis, 129 for Goodson — it was the defenses that defined Friday's contest.

The title game stood scoreless after one quarter. In that first frame, Fairmont Senior managed just one first down, while Independence never moved the chains.

The game opened with penalties on each team. But on the first two official plays from scrimmage, the Polar Bears set the tone with back-to-back tackles for loss by Jayden Cheriza and Tion Jules.

"It was back and forth," Bartic said. "It was a field position battle for a long time."

The Polar Bears finally broke through on a three-play drive early in the second. Fairmont Senior quarterback Dom Stingo hit Lewis on a screen for a first down, then connected with Kayson Nealy on a 12-yard pass that Nealy miraculously caught after being sandwiched by Patriot defenders right as the ball reached him.

The reception set up a deep pass to Evan Dennison, who reeled in the ball — but the officials ruled it had hit the ground first. Bartic opted not to challenge the play. The Polar Bears rendered the decision moot, as Stingo went right back to Dennison on a post route that the senior took 59 yards to the house. After the extra point the score stood at 7-0.

Independence answered in under two minutes. Trey Bowers burned his man in single coverage and hauled in a 41-yard bomb from Logan Phalin. After a defense-centric start, it looked like the offenses were heating up, and after a missed extra point, Fairmont led 7-6.

The Polar Bears used some trickery to move down the field on the next drive, employing a double pass from Stingo, to Dennison out wide, then down the field to Nealy for 39 yards. The play call got Fairmont Senior inside the 10, and Lewis eventually found the end zone from two yards out.

Fairmont Senior pulled out a double pass and a hook-and-ladder play in the first half, as Bartic emptied his bag of tricks.

"As they say, 'Last game of the year, can't hold anything back now,'" Bartic said. "We had to open up a little bit. And in a championship game, you've got to make it happen and our guys executed."

The two teams traded interceptions to close out the half, with Nealy snagging a pass where Phalin was under heavy pressure by Polar Bear senior Koby Toothman, only for Goodson to show his two-way prowess and record an interception of his own with under a minute to play before both squads headed back to their locker rooms with Fairmont leading 14-6.

The start of the second half mimicked the start of the first, with both defenses locking down and possession swinging back-and-forth.

It took until the 2:30 mark of the third quarter for the Wheeling crowd to see another score, as the talented Patriots offense finally uncorked a massive play. Judah Price found the edge on a run from midfield and outran the Polar Bear defense for a 46-yard touchdown — Independence's biggest play of the night.

The Patriots went for two and came about a yard short against the Polar Bear defense. Fairmont stayed ahead, 14-12.

Much like Independence did in the first half, Fairmont Senior answered quickly with a score of its own. Lewis took the squibbed kickoff to the Patriot 38 and took it the rest of the way the very next play, dashing in for a 38-yard score to increase the Polar Bear lead, 21-12.

"That was a tough call," Independence head coach John Lilly said. "We wanted to try and squib kick it and play good defense. And for the most part I thought we did. But that put us in bad field position. It was a good play on their part. It is what it is. Our kids battled real hard. I'm proud of them."

Independence was not done yet. Down nine, Atticus Goodson led a drive down to the Fairmont six yard-line, ripping off 18- and 16-yard runs to push his offense forward. Goodson fueled the Patriots offense Friday, averaging five yards on his 26 carries against a physical Fairmont Senior defense.

"I'm just glad that everybody around the state got to see him play," Lilly said of Goodson, a sure-fire Kennedy Award candidate. "Because sometimes we're stuck down south, and everybody doesn't get to see him play. He's special and I think we've got some other players that are special as well. I think Independence had a good showing here. We just came up short."

The Patriots got to the six-yard line, but fortune favored the Polar Bears. Independence fumbled on the three yard-line, and Fairmont Senior recovered. Lilly challenged the play, but the call stood, and with 9:42 to go in the game, Fairmont still led 21-12.

From there, Fairmont Senior pounded the ball, ran clock and got to midfield before turning the ball over on downs as the Patriots defense made a fourth-and-one stop.

The Patriots tried to mount a desperate drive, down nine with 2:30 remaining.

A double pass of their own went for 14, but three incompletions after that brought up a fourth and long. With three receivers to Phalin's right, and one to his left, the senior dropped back, looked to his right, and before he could progress through his reads, a trio of Polar Bears defenders were on top of him. The sack was Fairmont's first of the game, and it sealed the state championship for the Polar Bears.

For Independence, the season — while ultimately ending in defeat — was an incredible step forward, and one that will go down in the school's record books.

"I told the players a minute ago; there're no losers in the state championship. Just, one team won the state championship," Lilly said. "To go undefeated and do all the things that this team did for the first time in the history of the school, go undefeated for the first time since 1986, that's some special stuff. Win three playoffs games at home when they'd never won a playoff game at home since 1986 — we don't have anything to be ashamed about.

"What we've got to do is get back in that locker room and go back to work here in a couple weeks and try to get back here and win one."

Fairmont Senior made history of its own, being the second 16-seed in the history of the 16-team playoff format to win the state championship. After a 5-4 regular season and a gauntlet of playoff opponents that involved dramatic finishes against Herbert Hoover and Robert C. Byrd, the Polar Bears ended up in the same place they were last year — on top.

"That very thought of, 'How did we get here,' " Bartic said, when asked what was going through his mind right after the game. "It comes back to perseverance from our guys. From a bunch of teenagers, what they battled through, really proud of them.

"The guys coming together, clicking, you feel like once you've got that momentum and continuity, you felt like they were going to do something special, and they did. Sixteen-seed making it happen."

"It's unbelievable, it's crazy," Dom Stingo said. "Coming in as a 16-seed, I knew we weren't a 16-seed. We played like we weren't. We played like we belonged on the top."

"Everybody knew they were better than a 16-seed," Lilly said. "It wasn't a surprise in our room. Only team that'd beaten us in two years was them. They had our attention. To us, they were the state champs until somebody beats them."

Now with the last page of their storybook season written, the Polar Bears are looking forward to returning to Fairmont.

"Taking one home for Fairmont, taking one back to 12th Street," Bartic said. "Can't wait to celebrate on Loop Park on Monday."

"It means everything," Stingo said. "Winning a state championship your senior year, it means everything. That's how everybody wants to go out."

Reach Nick Henthorn at 304-367-2548 or by email at nhenthorn@timeswv.com.

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