FAIRMONT, W.Va. — Many of the names that helped Fairmont Senior notch its first football championship since 1946 last season are no longer with the Polar Bears.
Starting with the departure of last year’s MetroNews Player of the Year and Kennedy Award winner, quarterback Connor Neal, Fairmont Senior will have a different cast of characters as it tries to win consecutive titles for the first time.
Just don’t expect the Polar Bears’ expectations to change.
“This group of seniors and the group of guys that are hopeful starters are guys that have been in our program,” third-year FSHS head coach Nick Bartic said. “It’s not like they’re not familiar with what is expected of them and how things work around here.
“With that, the expectations are the same. But they are a different team. Your program has its culture, but the season to season identity of a team is a different thing. That’s kind of what we’re sifting through right now.”
Neal is hardly the only departure who leaves behind big shoes to fill. Two-way standouts Rhett Heston, Caleb Walker and Breeden Gilbert were big-time skill players and key to what the Polar Bears did on both sides of the ball, while wideouts JD Smith and Jake Pitman were instrumental to the passing attack.
But Bartic has high hopes for quarterback Gage Michael, who saw plenty of action in relief of Neal a year ago. The junior is a dual threat behind center and doesn’t lack arm strength. Fellow junior Kieshawn Cottingham is likely to be the primary tailback.
“By the third week, they’ll be known across the state,” said senior offensive lineman/linebacker Nate Kowalski. “They’re both really athletic.”
Kowalski is part of a group up front that will anchor the Polar Bears early and often. The offensive and defensive lines will feature returning Class AA first-team all-state selection Zach Frazier, a four-year starter and West Virginia University commit considered to be among the state’s top overall players.
Dom Owens gives both lines another experienced senior and another physical presence.
“Anytime you can have the line anchoring your scheme, you want to take advantage of that. That’s absolutely something we’re trying to do on both sides of the ball,” Bartic said. “Those are the guys that have the most experience. Not just in terms of class, but also in terms of play. Those guys have seen the most action. As they go, we will go.”
The Polar Bears have been strong on special teams in recent seasons and Bartic hopes this year is no different, particularly with the return of senior kicker Frankie Smith.
“We practice special teams every day — pads or not. Maybe you’re limited in terms of the contact, but it’s the same concept with offense and defense,” Bartic said. “They still have to know their assignment. We treat that with equal importance and we’ve done a good job the past few seasons of putting a lot of focus on special teams. That’s an opportunity for some of the in between guys to get playing time.”
Fairmont Senior is also in a different position this summer as it tries to defend a championship as opposed to 2018, when the Polar Bears were coming off consecutive runner-up finishes in Class AA.
“We want our guys to get better every day. That’s always our goal right now at this point in camp,” Bartic said. “We’re not going to focus on anybody but ourselves and that’s been the case in years past too.”
For a program that went 14-0 last season and is 36-5 the last three years with three trips to the Super Six, fine-tuning during preseason camp goes a long way.
“We want to go back-to-back and be the first ones in school history,” Kowalski said. “And we can be the most winning class in school history. That really makes us even hungrier.”