MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Here is everything you need to know about Friday’s Class AA state championship game between defending champion Bluefield and undefeated Fairmont Senior.
The game will be broadcast on AT&T Sportsnet Pittsburgh and on the MetroNews Channel at wvmetronews.com.
No team has come within 25 points of beating No. 1 Fairmont Senior this year and the Polar Bears feature the best offense in Class AA. Only Virginia state semifinalist Lord Botetourt has been able to solve the No. 2 Beavers this fall, defeating them 17-3.
And Bluefield owns the state’s stingiest defense.
“We went for a while in the 2000s — every other year or every year for a while, then all of a sudden we went on a nine-year drought,” said Bluefield head coach Fred Simon.
“Last year we made it (to the Super Six). I had missed it. I guess I got complacent thinking we will be there all the time like Martinsburg. And it didn’t happen. What does it mean to me? It is the greatest feeling in the world when you work hard and get back up there (to Wheeling). I appreciate it fifty times more than I did probably in the 2000s.”
“They have done an excellent job since the end of last season of taking care of business,” said Fairmont Senior head coach Nick Bartic. “They did what they needed to do in the offseason, the regular season and have checked off each objective to this mission except for one. That is what the focus is this week for Friday night.”
Last year’s state championship game was as competitive of a contest as any fan could ask for. Both teams scored four touchdowns and the Beavers prevailed 29-26, claiming their fifth state championship under Simon and 11th overall.
“It is going to be tough to beat that one,” Simon said. “What a neat game it was. I guess the neat thing was that we found a way to come out on top. Both teams never quit. It will be the same this year.”
“I do think that gave them a little extra fuel in the offseason to get back to this point,” Bartic said.
The Polar Bears have been on the good side of several lopsided games this fall where a running clock in the fourth quarter became the norm rather than the exception. Although they haven’t faced much in the way of ‘scoreboard pressure’, West has dealt with injuries to key personnel in the running game. The Polar Bears’ top two running backs, Caleb Walker and Breeden Gilbert, each missed half the season.
“We had to move a lot of guys around,” Bartic said. “A lot of different responsibilities and the way our guys handled that really speaks to their maturity and their focus.”
The Bears have still managed to surpass 2,000 rushing yards as a team with four players rushing for more than 300 yards. An experienced line led by junior and WVU recruit Zach Frazier leads the way.
Balance and depth are also on display in their passing game. Quarterback Connor Neal has dazzled throughout the season, tossing 44 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He has broken the Fairmont Senior single-season passing record and stands to become the program’s all-time leading passer on Friday.
“We have faced teams that have passed the ball 30 times but not with the efficiency where (Neal) can throw the ball fast,” Simon said. “He gets rid of it quick but the ball gets there quick. It is hard to emulate that.”
Seven different Polar Bears have reeled in a touchdown pass. Seniors Jake Pitman and J.D. Smith have led the way among the receivers and junior Cam Longwell has taken the team by surprise. Longwell caught three touchdown passes in the semifinal win over Weir.
“It really clicked for him in the offseason in terms of putting his speed and athleticism together with his intelligence and learning the offense and finding his fit,” Bartic said.
Meanwhile, Bluefield’s blueprint has remained largely the same.
Senior quarterback Chandler Cooper engineers an efficient offense with three strong running backs. Arnold Martin, Juice Edwards and J.J. Davis have picked up right where ‘Truck’ Edwards and Mookie Collier left off last season.
“They have all complemented each other very well,” Simon said. “They get close to what we had last year but they are not exactly what we had. But I think the combination gives us a pretty good, tough-to-stop offense.”
Just like the Polar Bears, Bluefield’s No. 54 holds a WVU offer as well. Sean Martin has asserted himself as a dominant force on both sides of the line of scrimmage and on special teams as well.
“He’s put on some weight,” Simon said. “He was probably about 200, 205 last year. He is 230. He is 6-foot-6. He runs well. He is a tough kid and a fun kid to coach. He has a neat little personality and he is a tough player.”
Two teams from opposite sides of the state will renew acquaintances on Wheeling Island as the Beavers look to defend the state title while the Bears seek their first championship since 1946.
“After looking at last season, our two teams were very comparable then and we are very comparable now,” Bartic said. “We graduated only a couple starters. They are in the same boat we were. A lot of similarities. We have different styles of play but very similar in terms of capabilities with our talent.”