MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — One team is in a position it has become plenty familiar with, while the other enters the season off the school’s first football championship in 72 years — way back when it was chosen by the state’s Sportswriters Association.
Defending Class AAA champion Martinsburg and Class AA champion Fairmont Senior begin their quest for a repeat starting with tonight’s season opener.
The Bulldogs, winners of a state record 42 straight games and seven of the last nine AAA titles, welcome H.D. Woodson of Washington, D.C.
“We look really good on paper, but there are things you can’t really describe as far as leadership and how a team meshes together and chemistry,” Martinsburg coach David Walker said on this week’s edition of MetroNews’ High School Sportsline. “We’ve done OK in that department. If you look man for man at what we have coming back, we look really solid.”
The Polar Bears, meanwhile, hit the road for a Big 10 Conference affair at Buckhannon-Upshur. It will be the first meeting between the two teams since 2016 — before Nick Bartic’s tenure began as FSHS head coach.
“Your identity will maneuver with your lineup year to year, but you hope your culture is consistent regardless of the personalities,” Bartic said ahead of his third season as head coach. “Looking at the personalities of our team and how we’ve developed, we’re very much a lineman-oriented group right now. Those senior linemen have taken the reins and it is their show.”
Walker and his staff have been busy preparing for an out-of-state opponent — one Martinsburg handily defeated last season, 42-6. But the Bulldogs are plenty aware of the talent the Warriors possess, and it was only in 2015 when Woodson came to Cobourn Field and prevailed, 26-24.
“Woodson has six Division I kids so it’s a very tough opener for us,” Walker said.
Still, the Bulldogs have plenty of notable returning players from last year’s 14-0 team. They’ve also added a key playmaker in wide receiver Malakai Brown, a Hedgesville transfer and former Randy Moss Award winner.
Walker said he’s comfortable with a plethora of receivers on the field, meaning opponents may have to pick their poison as it pertains to slowing down the Bulldogs.
“We have a saying at Martinsburg — competition either makes you better or you run away from it,” Walker said. “And our guys have really made themselves better. We have seven guys that we can put on the field and I feel very comfortable with.
“When those guys aren’t taking reps offensively, they’re on the other side of the ball defending each other. They’ve really pushed each other. Our competition level in practice is exceptional and I think that’s why we continue to stay at the level we’re at.”
While the Bulldogs have become accustomed to starting the season off a championship, this is a new feeling for the Polar Bears.
After losing in the Class AA title game in 2016 and 2017, FSHS broke through last season with a victory over Bluefield — and Bartic made sure his program didn’t sell the accomplishment short.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for that one, so we really enjoyed it as much as we could,” Bartic said. “Our town didn’t let us forget it either. We wanted to make sure we didn’t cut it short.”
Now, however, the Polar Bears remain focused on the present and hope to start the year with a win over a Class AAA opponent that finished 5-5 last season.
“They took their triple option attack and now run it out of the spread. It is something different,” Bartic said of B-U. “They’ve made adjustments on defense since the last time we’ve seen them a couple years ago. There are new things for us to prep for with them.
“We’ll have to be very disciplined on defense. You can’t get caught making the wrong reads and not flowing to your responsibilities. They’re going to put pressure on our guys to stay home and do their job.”