CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — Robert C. Byrd head coach Josh Gorrell dropped to his knees.
Fairmont Senior head coach Nick Bartic, like the Polar Bears’ coaching staff and players, couldn’t hide the elation.
In a matter of 20 seconds, No. 16 Fairmont Senior went from looking as though it would suffer a crushing loss after squandering a 21-point halftime advantage to regaining the lead for good courtesy of Dylan Ours’ 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that made all the difference in a 33-28 victory at No. 8 Robert C. Byrd.
“It’s not the way you draw it up,” Bartic said. “But however you do it, you find a way to win. It would be nice if we could find a way to pull away in one of these games instead of having it come down to the last play every time.”
The win allows Fairmont Senior (7-4) to advance to a semifinal next week at the winner of Saturday’s quarterfinal between No. 13 Frankfort and No. 5 Poca. Bartic confirmed moments after the thrilling victory over a Big 10 Conference rival that the Polar Bears would play Friday night next week.
Trailing 27-20, the Eagles converted a fourth-and-3 with Jeremiah King’s 4-yard run one play before quarterback Nick George tossed a 45-yard touchdown to Nathaniel Junkins — the third time that duo connected for a score through the air.
The Eagles (7-4) then called their final timeout to set up a two-point play in an effort to take the lead. It worked to perfection when George rolled out and used his feet to cross the goal line, putting RCB on top for the first and only time with 1:31 remaining.
One month earlier, the Eagles fell short at Fairmont Senior after scoring a late touchdown to cut their deficit to 21-20, before the point-after kick attempt failed.
“We talked about it with 6 minutes to go and said if we get the ball back and score, we’re going to go for two and try to win the ball game,” Gorrell said. “The kids wanted to go for two. At that point, I thought we had done what we needed to do. Obviously we had a breakdown on special teams and it cost us the ball game. It’s as simple as that.”
On the ensuing kickoff, Ours dashed to his left and escaped several Eagles before getting outside and letting his speed handle the rest en route to finding the end zone.
The Polar Bears’ two-point pass play fell incomplete, leaving FSHS with a 33-28 lead and 1:10 remaining.
“I knew we needed a big play. The ball came to me and I knew I had to make a play and that’s what we did,” Ours said. “I couldn’t have done it without the other ten people on the field that were blocking for me.”
RCB was unable to gain a first down on its final possession, and the clock expired on George’s incomplete pass on fourth down.
“I’m just physically sick,” Gorrell said. “To overcome what we overcame and take the lead, I couldn’t ask for any more out of my kids tonight. I’m extremely proud of them. I’m grateful to coach this group of seniors for four years. It’s just not in the cards for us tonight.”
It didn’t appear the Polar Bears would need late-game heroics after dominating the opening half.
They drove 80 yards on their opening series and produced to the game’s first points on Dom Stingo’s 20-yard pass to Kayson Nealy, though the PAT failed, leaving them with a 6-0 lead.
After stopping King close to the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-2, the Polar Bears began their second series at the RCB 46. Six plays later, they had a second touchdown on Germaine Lewis’ 5-yard run, allowing them to lead 13-0 with 57 seconds left in the first quarter.
Ours’ interception of a George pass in the second quarter highlighted more of Fairmont Senior’s strong defensive play in the first half, and the Polar Bears upped their advantage when Stingo found Jayden Cheriza for a 52-yard touchdown pass 38 seconds before halftime.
Ours tossed a pass to Jace Dalton for a successful two-point conversion, leaving FSHS with a 21-0 halftime lead.
“We changed our defense to a four [man] front to be able to compact the middle more so [King] couldn’t get those easy breakways,” Polar Bears’ defensive end Eric Smith said. “I was on the outside so he couldn’t get an easy run on the outside.”
The contest began to turn just past the midway point of the third quarter after Stingo lost a fumble that RCB’s Jonathan Arnold recovered, allowing the Eagles to start at their 45.
One play after Fairmont Senior jumped offside on fourth-and-1, George connected with Junkins for a 14-yard touchdown pass and the Eagles’ first points.
RCB then forced a three-and-out to start at its 48 and King reached pay dirt on a 3-yard run. The point-after try was blocked, leaving the Eagles with a 21-13 deficit with 9:47 remaining.
FSHS offered a strong response and one play after Stingo found Nealy on a 45-yard pass, the quarterback rushed for a 9-yard touchdown to give the Polar Bears a 14-point lead with 7:13 left.
Junkins then made consecutive one-handed catches to pull RCB back to within one touchdown. The first went for 24 yards and the second was a 10-yard TD reception with 6:15 to play.
“They did a really good job in the second half adjusting and put themselves in positions to win,” Bartic said. “They made gutsy calls at the end and took the lead. They got after it. You have to teams that battled for 48 minutes. There are a lot of banged up, exhausted guys and that was a championship effort on both sides.”