Bridgeport pulls away down the stretch, tops Fairmont Senior 40-20

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — Over the last decade, Bridgeport and Fairmont Senior has been one of the premier high school football rivalries across West Virginia. 

Although the Indians moved up to Class AAA at the start of the 2020-21 school year, the battle for supremacy in the Big Ten Conference between two teams that have combined for seven of the last 10 Class AA state championships remains one of the more anticipated games of the regular season.

That was again the case Friday as the Class AAA No. 9 Indians welcomed the Class AA fourth-ranked Polar Bears to Wayne Jamison Field in a back-and-forth battle that went to the fourth quarter tied at 20.

That’s when the Indians took control, utilizing a 2-yard Josh Love touchdown run with 10:20 remaining to go on top for good. It was the start of the Tribe’s 20 unanswered points to end the game, which allowed Bridgeport to pull away for a 40-20 victory over the Polar Bears.

“We’re really focused on ourselves, but at the same time, you don’t want two losses early in the season,” BHS head coach Tyler Phares said. [Fairmont Senior] Coach [Nick] Bartic has a fantastic football team and anytime they’re coming in, it’s always going to be a big game. We know each other really well, so it’s a really special game for both sides.”

Following Love’s go-ahead touchdown run, Zach Rohrig intercepted Brody Whitehair on a fourth-and-2 play in which he ripped the ball away from intended target Gavin Michael.

The Indians then had a chance to put the game away and lined up to go for it on fourth-and-2 with 3:01 remaining, only to commit a false start penalty. Bridgeport (3-1) still kept its offense on the field on fourth-and-7 from midfield, though a pitch play resulted in a fumble that the Polar Bears’ Trevor Bigelow recovered.

“We know who we are. We’re not going to change based on the game,” Phares said. “We have an identity, we believe in our identity and we’re going to play with that identity.”

That allowed Fairmont Senior (3-1) to start at its 43-yard line with 2:55 remaining needing seven points to tie. But on the second play of that series, Whitehair was sacked from his blindside by Beau Ford off the edge, and it led to a fumble that Bridgeport’s Aidan Sparks recovered.

“It means a whole lot and the world to me that he has faith in us,” Ford said of Phares’ decision to go for it on fourth down in favor of playing for field position. “With this group, he’s always said we have the talent. It’s just the maturity. We really took that step forward and matured. For him to put his trust and faith in us shows a lot.”

Rohrig immediately followed with a 28-yard touchdown run to make it a two-possession game for the first time. Rohirg added another rushing touchdown with 1:34 to play to cap the scoring.

“We lost once on this field and we don’t want to do it again,” Ford said. “We always want to beat Fairmont and we didn’t want to be 2-2. We wanted to make a statement to the entire statement that we’re here to play and here to stay.”

The Polar Bears fell behind early after Whitehair’s 64-yard touchdown pass to Dylan Ours on the first play from scrimmage was negated by a holding penalty. Fairmont Senior ultimately punted and Bridgeport marched 67 yards on its opening possession, which ended with Tanner Hathaway’s 5-yard touchdown run and a 7-0 lead 5:03 into the contest.

FSHS wasted no time offering a response and immediately countered with a 63-yard touchdown pass from Whitehair to Navaughn Jones, allowing the visitors to pull even 44 seconds after they fell behind.

Bridgeport lost a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, but its defense rose to the occasion and forced a punt that kept the matchup tied at 7.

The Indians regained the lead on their third drive, which covered 80 yards and ended with Hathaway scoring his second touchdown on a 3-yard run.

“Everybody wants to load up to our strong side because of our formation and Tanner won’t allow that to happen because he’s such a tough, downhill runner,” Phares said. “I can’t speak enough about how he blocks and when he gets the tough yardage, it’s fantastic.”

Senior responded quickly again and tied it at 14 when Whitehair threw a second touchdown pass to Jones — this one covering 16 yards 6:56 before halftime.

Ours’ interception of a Rohirg pass brought an end to a 12 play drive for Bridgeport that took off more than 6 minutes of what remained on the first-half clock and helped send the game to halftime knotted at 14.

The second half began with Love’s 40-yard run and two plays later, the Indians gained a 20-14 lead courtesy of Hathaway’s 7-yard touchdown run. The point-after try was blocked, leaving the Polar Bears’ deficit at six 37 seconds into the second half.

As was the case throughout the first half, Senior offered another strong response and produced a touchdown on Whitehair’s 11-yard pass to Michael on fourth-and-1. That tied the game at 20, and the Polar Bears couldn’t manage a lead when their point-after attempt was blocked with 7:44 remaining in the third.

After the Polar Bears forced a turnover on downs, Cale Culicerto intcerpceted Whitehair late in the third quarter to help set up Love’s go-ahead touchdown run on the fourth play of the fourth quarter.

“The way the scoring went in the game, we gave ourselves an opportunity there in the fourth quarter,” Polar Bears’ head coach Nick Bartic said. “It’s hard to get some stops, but we got a couple and we had to try and capitalize on turnovers and those things. We just didn’t quite do it enough.”

Bridgeport rushed for 424 yards. Rohrig had 28 carries for 223 yards and Love added 130 yards on 15 attempts. Hathaway, who had a game-high three touchdowns, added 77 yards on 13 rushes.

Fairmont Senior rushed for only 24 yards, though Whitehair passed for 233 in defeat. He completed 17-of-33 passes and passed for all three of his team’s touchdowns.

“We really wanted to keep them in front of us and there were times it was tough, just because they’re such a good football team,” Phares said. “Being able to keep them in front and make good plays was a big part of it. When they did burn us, our kids learned a little bit from it. We talked and to watch them come back and do a great job of adjusting in the second half was awesome.”

Ours left the game early in the fourth quarter with an injury and did not return.

“Obviously it’s big to lose somebody like that,” Bartic said. “We had guys battle through that and some guys step up and that’s something we’ll have to continue with as we prep for next week.”

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