Herbert Hoover went from elation to deflation in the blink of an eye Saturday afternoon.
Fairmont Senior linebacker Germaine Lewis sacked the quarterback in the end zone for a safety with 2:17 left, breaking a tie and sending No. 16 seed Fairmont Senior to a 30-28 victory against the top-seeded Huskies in a memorable Class AA first-round game at University of Charleston Stadium.
Dom Stingo, summoned off the bench as the backup quarterback, threw for 195 yards and three touchdowns for the Polar Bears, who had to overcome a quick 14-0 deficit against the inspired Huskies.
Fairmont (6-4) advances into the quarterfinals next weekend at No. 8 Robert C. Byrd. The Polar Bears have reached at least the semifinal round each of the last six years, winning a pair of state championships.
“It’s playoff time,’’ said Fairmont coach Nick Bartic. “We tell our guys it’s Thunderdome. This had all the feeling of a title bout, and that’s how it feels every round in the playoffs. They have a great team, and people got their money’s worth today watching that game. What a battle of high-level competition.’’
Hoover, coming off its first 10-0 regular season since 1977, had just made a stellar defensive stop in a game chock full of impactful plays, a goal-line stand at its own 1 with 3:08 left when a trio of defenders tackled Lewis just short of the end zone, keeping the score at 28-28.
However, on Hoover’s ensuing second down from 3, Lewis broke through the line and tackled Huskies quarterback Dane Hatfield in the end zone for the deciding points.
Hoover attempted an onside kick that was covered by Stingo at the Huskies 34, and the Polar Bears picked up a first down to run out the remaining time.
“They made a play on us late,’’ said Hoover coach Joey Fields. “We got beat in some places, but that’s what good teams do. They were able to do some stuff that takes away from what we do … they were able to load up the box there and give us different fronts, and they won the one-on-one battles at times, and that made it tough.’’
Fairmont limited Hoover’s big-play passing game as Hatfield managed just 56 yards in the air, completing 9 of 13 throws. Eric Smith, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound lineman, hounded the Huskies on both sides of the ball, as they followed his blocking while on offense and watched him collect nine tackles on defense, including two sacks.
Momentum swayed back and forth the entire way, with Hoover vaulting into a 14-0 lead less than eight minutes into the game only to see Fairmont go up 15-14 after one quarter. It was tied at 21 at halftime and at 28 after three quarters.
Senior running back Hunter Bartley stood out for the Huskies, carrying 21 times for 115 yards and scoring three touchdowns.
Bartley’s 16-yard TD burst on Hoover’s first possession made it 7-0 and five plays later, the Huskies were on the board again as Nathan Harper scooped up a Fairmont fumble and brought it back 52 yards for a score and it was 14-0.
That play turned out to be a turning point, as Fairmont’s starting quarterback, Jayden Cheriza, was shaken up and replaced during the next series by Stingo, who had started some under center earlier in the season.
Stingo proceeded to throw touchdown passes of 80 and 58 yards to Evan Dennison on Fairmont’s next four offensive plays to send his team to a 15-14 lead. He later found Kayson Nealy with a 15-yard scoring toss with 17 seconds left in the second quarter to tie it at 21.
“Stingo was ready,’’ Bartic said. “I told him to stay ready and he came in, and what a game. You can’t say enough about that performance coming in relatively cold at quarterback and playing like that. An incredible performance.’’
The second half was a little more cautious for both teams offensively, especially Hoover, which almost never got the chance to let Hatfield fire the ball deep downfield.
“We were having trouble with protection,’’ Fields said. “They were beating us in those one-on-one battles, so we tried to get the easy stuff where they were man to man. That made it tough, so we ran right at them, and had some success doing it.’’
Just like on its first possession of the game, Hoover took the third-quarter kickoff and moved 74 yards, with Bartley scoring from the 4 for a 28-21 lead. During the drive, Dane Hatfield found brother Devin Hatfield with a 23-yard toss, Hoover’s lone pass play covering more than 10 yards.
But Fairmont didn’t relent after falling behind for a third time. Stingo’s 2-yard TD run with 4:57 left in the third quarter tied it up at 28.
“Our guys have battled all year,’’ Bartic said, “battled back when we got down. But Hoover’s going to score points, so you have to be able to score with them. Our defense did as good a job as you could with them, giving up 28 points with the level they’re at.’’
Hoover, the Cardinal Conference champion, averaged 49 points per game during the regular season and posted five shutouts on defense.
Fields, in his second year with the Huskies, was left to ponder their bad luck for getting a team in the first round with a pedigree like Fairmont Senior, which tackled a murderous schedule full of Class AAA powers.
“We told our guys it was an unfortunate draw,’’ Fields said, “but you’re going to play them sooner or later. You just have to play a state-championship caliber game — maybe the state championship game — in round one. It’s just unfortunate.
“I’d rather be coming home with a state runner-up, with the silver, but that’s the hand you’re dealt, especially the last two seasons. They’re a good football team, we’re a good football team. We just didn’t win today.’’
Hoover became the second straight No. 1 seed in AA to lose in the first round. Sissonville fell to No. 16 Elkins last year.