WHEELING, W.Va. — Fairmont Senior was the top-ranked team in Class AA throughout the 2018 season.
On Friday night at Wheeling Island Stadium, the No. 1 Polar Bears proved why with a 23-13 victory against No. 2 Bluefield, but how they accomplished it was at least somewhat unexpected.
Despite having one of the state’s top passing attacks keyed by quarterback Connor Neal, the Polar Bears (14-0) went to the ground on 44 of their 63 offensive plays. The approach worked, with Fairmont Senior pounding its way to 226 rushing yards, including 115 on 22 carries by Breeden Gilbert and 99 on 11 attempts from Rhett Heston.
“It starts with our offensive line and our offensive line was very physical,” Polar Bears coach Nick Bartic said. “They really stayed the course and did what they did all year and that’s why we got to this point. We can throw it obviously, but you have to be able to run the ball to win championships to some degree, and our guys did that to finish the game.”
A strong first quarter and stellar defensive effort were also big factors in giving Fairmont Senior its first football title since 1946 and its first since the WVSSAC began crowning champions the following year.
The Polar Bears took a 6-0 lead on Heston’s 44-yard touchdown run 5:29 into the opening quarter. Fairmont Senior elected to go for two, but threw an incomplete pass and was left with a 6-0 lead.
Bluefield crossed midfield on its second series of the game, but elected to punt on fourth-and-2 at the Fairmont Senior 48-yard line.
Three plays after a 20-yard punt, Neal’s threw a 25-yard TD pass to J.D. Smith at the 2:59 mark of the first quarter. Frankie Smith followed with a successful point-after kick to push the lead out to 13-0.
“Looking back now, maybe I wish we’d have gone for it, but that’s hindsight,” Bluefield coach Fred Simon said. “We have a good punter, but the punt only went (20) yards and he’s better than that. I like percentages sometimes in championship games, meaning if they have to go 80 or 90 yards, it’s sure tougher than going 50 or 60. It just didn’t work out and special teams are big in playoff games, and we got beat in that.”
Heston’s sack of Chandler Cooper helped force a third Bluefield punt, and the Polar Bears took over at the Beavers’ 44 late in the first quarter.
Seven plays later, a 2-yard touchdown run by Gilbert enabled the Polar Bears to hold a 20-0 lead 10:43 before halftime.
“Going up 20-0, especially in a state championship game, takes all the life out of your opponent,” Heston said.
However, the Beavers (12-2) answered just 1:35 later when Cooper threw a 59-yard TD pass to Ronnell Blevins to pull to within 20-7.
The score stayed that way until 48 seconds remained in the third quarter when Smith connected on a 25-yard field goal to extend the FSHS lead to 23-7.
The Beavers narrowed the deficit 10 points with 10:48 to play on Cooper’s 42-yard TD pass to Isaiah Johnson, but Cooper was stopped short on the two-point run, leaving the Polar Bears with the 23-13 lead.
Bluefield got the ball back with a chance to pull closer, but Cooper fumbled on a quarterback sneak and Heston recovered at the 8:07 mark.
“We had a little line stunt and a blitz from the linebackers. I don’t know if that necessarily had anything to do with the fumble, but that’s a big-time play that allowed us to milk the clock,” Bartic said.
The Polar Bears successfully ran off 6-plus minutes on their ensuing drive to seal the verdict, gaining 44 yards on 13 plays before turning it over on downs with 1:25 remaining.
“We just play the numbers game in the box,” Bartic said. “We’re going to take what the defense gives us and our guys wre able to establish the run.”
Gilbert and Heston were effective in both halves. Gilbert rushed for 55 yards on 11 first-half carries, while Heston racked up 73 first-half rushing yards on five carries.
“We knew the running game was going to be big,” Heston said, “and me and Breeden were really excited.”
Neal was his usual steady self, completing 13-of-19 passes for 187 yards without a turnover.
Exavier Posey intercepted two passes in the win, while Smith had a team-high 67 receiving yards on a pair of catches.
Cooper completed 7-of-14 passes for 146 yards in defeat, while Juice Edwards rushed for 111 yards on 16 carries.
The Beavers, who edged Fairmont Senior 29-26 a year ago in the AA title game, finished with 274 total yards, compared to 413 for the Polar Bears.
Bluefield’s Sean Martin led all players with 15 tackles, including two tackles for loss and one sack, while Fairmont Senior’s Zach Frazier had seven tackles and a pair of sacks.
“Physically, they were pretty tough,” Simon said. “I think they were more physical than us at the beginning and it hurt us a little bit. But it is what it is. We hurt their feelings last year and I think that hurt us some, because they were hungry and hats off to them for that.
“You just have to make plays and we didn’t make them when we needed to.”