WHEELING, W.Va. — Fairmont Senior had come too far to not finish the job.
A No. 16 seed, the Polar Bears found themselves in must-win mode for each of their last six games.
They passed the first five of those tests to allow for a matchup with No. 2 Independence in Friday’s Class AA final at Wheeling Island Stadium.
As the Polar Bears became accustomed to down the stretch, they found a way to win, holding a decisive passing advantage and overcoming two two turnovers by forcing a pair of their own to prevail, 21-12.
“We played in a lot of big games and played a lot of tough teams and we’ve been able to apply that in the playoffs,” FSHS head coach Nick Bartic said.
The Polar Bears are the first No. 16 seed to win a championship since Musselman in 1995, when the Applemen were in Class AA.
It marked Fairmont Senior’s third championship since 2018. Last season, the Polar Bears were deemed state champion following their semifinal win at Bluefield.
“Taking one home to Fairmont and taking one back to 12th Street, I can’t wait to celebrate on Loop Park on Monday,” Bartic said. “We’ve learned to enjoy it. When you win it, that never gets old and we’re going to enjoy it.”
Neither team scored in the opening period, with the Patriots (11-1) punting three times and the Polar Bears twice.
Following another exchange of punts early in the second quarter, Fairmont Senior (8-4) put together the game’s first scoring drive by marching 82 yards in seven plays, the bulk of which came on Dom Stingo’s 59-yard touchdown pass to Evan Dennison. The first of three point-after kicks by Trey Longwell left FSHS with a 7-0 lead 7:30 before halftime.
The Patriots capitalized on strong field position and offered a 52-yard drive in response, scoring their first points on Logan Phalin’s 41-yard TD pass to Trey Bowers. The point-after attempt by Atticus Goodson missed wide, leaving IHS with a 7-6 deficit.
But the Polar Bears answered with a 10 play drive, getting a key 39-yard pass from Dennison to Kayson Nealy on second-and-30 to set up Germaine Lewis’ 2-yard touchdown run that left FSHS with a 14-6 halftime lead.
“Our guys were pretty confident we could score, but we continually were in bad field position,” Independence coach John Lilly said.
In danger of falling behind by more, the Patriots forced a Stingo incompletion on fourth-and-9, allowing them to start at their 24-yard line with 3:55 to play in the third quarter.
Four plays later, Judah Price broke off a 46-yard touchdown run that brought Independence to within two points. However, Goodson was stopped just short of the goal line on the two-point attempt, leaving the Polar Bears with a 14-12 lead.
“All year long, everybody keyed on Atticus,” Lilly said. “Judah stepped up and made a great run to put us back in the game. That’s the type of player he is.”
A critical sequence followed, with Lewis returning the ensuing kickoff 28 yards to the Independence 38, allowing Fairmont Senior to regain the momentum. On the very next play, Lewis broke free for a 38-yard touchdown run, which combined with Longwell’s extra point, allowed FSHS to lead 21-12 for its first two possession advantage at the 2:02 mark of the third quarter.
“I hit the hole, busted out and got into the open and just took off,” Lewis said. “I knew I was gone. I heard the crowd screaming and got my mojo going.”
The Patriots didn’t go quietly though, and Goodson’s 16-yard run on fourth-and-1 put them at the Polar Bears’ 35 early in the fourth quarter. Following two more Independence first downs, Goodson fumbled inside the Polar Bears’ 5, and Fairmont Senior’s Michael Kruzel came up with the pivotal recovery.
“We stayed the course and made adjustments when we had to,” Bartic said. “They really stressed us on some things, but we didn’t get rattled. We made our adjustments and our guys handled it and executed it when we needed to.”
FSHS then ran off more than 7 minutes of the remaining 9:42, allowing Independence only one more possession, which ended when Phalin was sacked by Koby Toothman and Dylan Ours on fourth-and-10 with 1:56 to play.
“No one really shut us down this year, but they did a great job shutting us down,” Lilly said.
Lewis rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries and caught a pair of passes for 25 yards to finish as the Polar Bears’ most valuable player.
“We just kept wearing them down and eventually big plays are going to happen,” Lewis said.
Stingo was intercepted twice, but threw for 174 yards on 15 completions. Dennison (5 receptions, 89 yards) and Nealy (6-81) did most of the damage in the Polar Bears’ passing attack.
Toothman had 3.5 tackles for loss in the victory.
Goodson rushed for 129 yards on 26 carries and was the Patriots’ MVP. Price added 60 rushing yards, but the Patriots netted only 70 passing yards on 12 throws, with seven falling incomplete and one being intercepted.