Among the classic rivalries in West Virginia high school football, Fairmont Senior/North Marion can be about as intense as they come but is often overlooked. Both schools have a rich football history but it has been rare when the Polar Bears and Huskies have both been very good at the same time.
Fairmont Senior has been among the elite programs in Class AA the last half decade, with multiple deep playoffs runs and a state championship to show for it. North Marion, meanwhile, has been keeping a close watch on its Marion County rival while slowly building itself back into a playoff contender. Last season the Huskies went 7-3 in the regular season to qualify for the Class AA playoffs before being bounced in the first round at Poca.
Now North Marion wants to take the next step, and what better way to take stock of where your program is at than a visit from your more than capable neighbors from down the road? The Huskies want to be among the state’s elite, and they’ll know where they stand after Friday’s rivalry game in Rachel.
“Doesn’t everybody [want to be as good as Fairmont Senior has been]?” North Marion coach Daran Hays said. “The run they’re having now is comparable to what we were doing when we first opened our school [Class AAA state titles in 1980 and 1981 followed by a runner-up season] — going to the title game three-straight years and producing one loss and zero loss seasons for a streak of four or five years. They’ve really set the bar.”
So it should go without saying that expectations are high for Fairmont Senior again this season. Last week’s season-opener against Lincoln was called off after a positive COVID-19 test shut down the Cougars’ program for a period of time, so Friday will be everyone’s first chance in to see if the 2020 Polar Bears can match or even exceed those expectations.
Fairmont Senior brings back one of the state’s top quarterbacks from last season, senior Gage Michael, to direct the offense. Michael, who has committed to play at Kent State, played through an injury to lead Fairmont Senior to the state semifinals in 2019 on what turned out to be a broken foot. Polar Bear coach Nick Bartic said falling short of another trip to Wheeling for the Super Six left a sense of unfinished business for his quarterback.
“There should be [high expectations for Michael],” Bartic said. “He ended up, after the season, we found out he had a fracture in his foot. He battled through that through the playoffs, and that just tells you the toughness he has. Outside of that, you feel like you left something out there. He has a lot of expectations on him and they are well deserved. He works as hard as anybody we’ve ever had and he is as competitive as anybody we’ve ever had. We’re excited to see what he’s going to do this season.”
The Polar Bears have no shortage of talent at the skill positions around Michael, but lost more along its offensive and defensive lines than perhaps any team in the state. Four starters, including current WVU lineman Zach Frazier, were lost to graduation — leaving Fairmont Senior with questions surrounding how to fill those spots.
“That’s where the question mark is going to be — up front,” Bartic said. “Aiden Green is the only returner, and his toughness isn’t in question. He played the end of the season with a torn labrum, and he’s one just one of those guys. He’s going to battle no matter what happens. We think we have something there, but you don’t know for sure until you get to some live action. We’re interested to see what happens Friday. We know [North Marion is] going to be good and there are a lot of expectations for them.”
The Huskies rolled 32-0 win last week at Class AAA Preston to get their 2020 campaign off to a solid start. Do-it-all junior Tariq Miller was expected to be a standout player again for North Marion this season, and he delivered in last week’s win.
“Tariq is exceptional,” Hays said. “We knew we had something special in him when he was a backup as a freshman and we had a guy roll an ankle. He got his first career start in the last game of the year, and I think he had two receptions for 104 yards and two touchdowns. We were like, ‘Wow we look like idiots. We should have been playing him all along.’ We knew we had something special then he had a breakout year as a sophomore last year.”
Hays said it is no secret that Miller is a playmaker for his team. Now, the test for him is finding ways to get the ball in his playmaker’s hands.
“We’ve got to do a good job of getting him the ball in different scenarios,” Hays said. “He’s not going to be a pounder like Devin [Millers’ older brother and a former North standout], who was a little bigger and thicker player. Tariq catches it as well as anybody I’ve seen and he’s a great competitor. The thing that really got me going with him last week is we made a position change with him defensively — moving him from corner to safety. I liked it, it was something that [NM assistant coach Steve] Harbert hit me with and I liked the idea. We know he is able to play some lock down corner if need be, but he was really able to close off the middle of the field for us [as a safety] last week — he two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown that got called back. He did was he does on offense with five or six receptions for close to 100 yards and carried it twice and he was second or third on the team in tackles.”
Bartic said he knows Miller is a player that can make you pay if you lose track of him.
“Tariq is a real deal player that you’ve got to game-plan for,” Bartic said. “Obviously they’re gong to try to get the ball in his hands, as they should, so there will be a lot of cat and mouse in how they’re going to try to get him the ball in different ways. Our guys are going to have to be aware of that and react rather than getting lured into any deception of him getting the ball. They need to be aware of where he is at at all times.”
Week 2’s other top games:
- Liberty (Harrison) (1-0) at Bridgeport (0-0): Harrison County rivals clash in Bridgeport’s first game in its return to Class AAA. The Class AA Mountaineers got a win last week against South Harrison, but the Indians — last season’s Class AA state champions — represent a significant increase in quality of opponent.
- Huntington (0-1) at Cabell Midland (1-0): The “Shield” game between bitter rivals is always a fun one. Huntington struggled to score points in a season-opening loss at home against Hurricane last week, while Midland went to Parkersburg South on short notice and pounded the Patriots.
- Musselman (1-0) at Martinsburg (0-0): Potential Game of the Year candidate in Class AAA. Musselman is as good as it has been in a long time while the four-time defending Class AAA state champion Bulldogs face plenty of unknowns after a coaching change and graduation losses. It feels like we’ll find out just how wide-open (if at all) the Class AAA title field can be with the result of this game. Also, don’t discount that Musselman’s Blake Hartman can make early waves in the Kennedy Award race with a big night against Martinsburg.
- Keyser (1-0) at Oak Glen (1-0): Two very good teams that have to be considered among the contenders in Class AA. Both teams won big in Week 1, with the Golden Tornado blasting Berkeley Springs and Oak Glen getting a 36-12 win on the road at Point Pleasant.
- Moorefield (1-0) at East Hardy (1-0): Hardy County rivals and two of Class A’s top public school football programs meet after opening-week wins. Both teams were in the playoffs last season, and both figure to field strong squads again this season. This one is for local bragging rights but also could be a game that figures into the Class A playoff equation at season’s end.
- Grafton (1-0) at St. Marys (1-0): Grafton shutout East Fairmont last week, but St. Marys — despite being a Class A team — is no step down in competition this week. The Blue Devils have been a fixture in the Class A state playoffs in recent years, and figure to be in that group again in 2020. A win on the road at St. Marys would be a big one for the Bearcats.