WHEELING — It wasn’t exactly the kind of game Fairmont Senior was used to playing, but it was the kind of result the Polar Bears had been seeking for years.
Breeden Gilbert churned out 118 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries as the top-seeded Polar Bears shot out to a big lead, but ultimately had to hang on for a 23-13 victory against Bluefield Friday night in the Class AA finals at Wheeling Island Stadium.
It gave Fairmont Senior (14-0) its first state championship since 1946 and wiped out the bitter memories of losses in the last two AA title games — to Mingo Central in 2016 and to Bluefield last year.
“That’s as good as it gets,’’ said Polar Bears coach Nick Bartic. The program’s last championship 72 years ago came by a state sports writers vote the year before the SSAC began to sponsor title games.
Fairmont vaulted into a 20-0 lead in the second quarter, riding a hot start by senior quarterback Connor Neal, and only scored on Frankie Smith’s 25-yard field goal in the second half, but it had enough of a cushion to put down the No. 2 seed Beavers (12-2).
It may have started out looking like a one-sided contest, but it certainly didn’t end that way and didn’t resemble any of the previous games this season for the Polar Bears, who had been running roughshod over the rest of Class AA – with no regular-season game closer than 26 points and winning their first three playoff games by an average of 54 points.
Their defense held the Beavers to 107 total yards in the first half, and that included a late 41-yard touchdown pass from Chandler Cooper to Ronnell Blevins to account for much of that yardage as Bluefield made it 20-7 at the break.
“Our defense came up big when they needed to,’’ Bartic said. “You’ve got to play physical with [Bluefield], and we knew that going in. Our guys had to be very disciplined against their misdirection stuff, their power schemes. It’s easy to get [lost] against that, but I thought we were very disciplined and physical.’’
The Beavers, in fact, only scored on two long passes from Cooper, who was selected as his team’s MVP in a media vote. The other was a 42-yarder to Isaiah Johnson with 10:48 left in the game to make it 23-13. Bluefield then went for a 2-point conversion to make it a one-possession game, but Cooper came up a yard short of the end zone.
Bluefield, which was averaging nearly 300 yards rushing per game, was held to 129 yards on 32 carries. Cooper was 6 of 14 passing for 127 yards with an interception and was sacked three times, twice by Fairmont stud lineman Zach Frazier.
“We came out flat or whatever it may be,’’ said Beavers coach Fred Simon, “and we dug ourselves a hole, and it was hard to get out of it. Against a good team like that, you can’t do it. I’d have liked to have it over again where we don’t start out in a hole and see what happens.’’
Fairmont Senior made it hard on Bluefield to catch up by stringing together some time-consuming drives — a near nine-minute possession at the end of the second quarter, a six-minute march in the third period and a 61/2-minute drive in the fourth quarter. The Bears only got three total points out of those, but limited Bluefield’s comeback attempt by playing keep-away, smartly letting the game clock run down as much as possible before snapping the ball.
“Our offense was able to milk the clock,’’ Bartric said, “and what a job they did. Connor Neal pretty much called the entire second half by himself. And when you’ve got a guy like that, you let him do his thing.’’
Neal threw for 139 of his 190 yards in the first half and wound up 14 of 19 with no interceptions and was sacked just one by Sean Martin. Neal found J.D. Smith with a 25-yard TD pass in the first quarter, with Smith making a juggling catch while falling on his back in the end zone.
Fairmont’s other first-half touchdowns came on a 44-yard run by Rhett Heston (11 carries, 94 yards) and Gilbert’s 2-yard run. Gilbert was chosen as his team’s MVP.
Trailing by 10 points, Bluefield still appeared to have a chance when it got inside the Fairmont 40 with about nine minutes left in the game, but Heston fell on a Cooper fumble and the Polar Bears cranked out three more first downs (they finished with 22) to just about seal it.
“They’re tough,’’ Simon said of the Bears. “They’re good at executing what they do and they’re a very talented team. It would have been nice to get a few stops and get them off the field, but we lost to a very good football team and hats off to them.
“I’m sorry for our players and our coaching staff, but life moves on. You hate to come up here and get your butt beat, but I don’t think we have anything to drop our heads about. We gave a great effort the whole game.’’