Coal City – The last time Independence lost was over a year ago when it played Fairmont Senior in the Class AA quarterfinals.
The Patriots are hoping Friday’s matchup with the Polar Bears is more of a revenge game than a bookend loss.
The two teams will meet at Wheeling Island Stadium in the Class AA championship Friday at 7 p.m. with all the marbles on the line. When Indy head coach John H. Lilly puts on the tape he sees a team that can threaten the same way his can.
With three receivers that account for over 300 yards each, it’s easy to see why Lilly believes that.
“I see a reflection of us,” Lilly said. “They’ve got playmakers everywhere. They’re in the state championship for a reason. They got a lot of speed on the outside and a good running back but they’re very, very big and physical on the offensive and defensive lines. It could very well be a tough-fought game. Last year, we had three of our starting offensive linemen quarantined but it wouldn’t have mattered. They were good and they’re still good. Their left tackle is already signed to go DI, but we’re good too.”
For the reasons Lilly just mentioned, he is concerned with defending them. QB Dom Stingo leads the passing attack, having played half the season after an injury sidelined freshman QB Brody Whitehair. The most concerning part is the guessing game that comes with the Polar Bears. While foes like Roane County and Bluefield favored running or passing, Fairmont presents a truly balanced offense that bases in the stretch run game and makes you defend horizontally and vertically.
“They mix things up,” Lilly said. “They’re a team that’s pretty much 50-50 and in high school that makes you hard to defend. Even teams who think they’re 50-50 aren’t 50-50. We like to think we’re 50-50 but we’re not. We’re striving to be and that’s where we want to end up. I’ll give them the biggest compliment – we learned a lot from that game last year and the biggest thing was how important home field is. That was an emphasis for us to do whatever we had to do to get home field. I think we won Friday (against Bluefield) and the last two games because we had home field. The other thing we learned was how balanced we needed to be. Coach (Mark) Sampson is the offensive coordinator and we coached against each other in the North-South game too, but he does such a great job. In five years he’s had two of the best quarterbacks in the state in Connor Neal and Gage Michael. That speaks volumes now what kind of coach he is. (Head Coach) Nick (Bartic) runs the defense and I’ve been around him at some clinics and he’s sharp. There’s a reason they’ve only lost about eight games in five years.”
While conventional wisdom would lead one to believe last year’s loss prepares the Patriots somewhat for the challenge ahead, that’s not a belief Lilly subscribes to. He was posed the same question repeatedly last week after his team scrimmaged Bluefield in the preseason and had the same answer he does now.
“I don’t really think so,” Lilly said. “Everybody asked that about scrimmaging Bluefield and I don’t think it matters. It’s two different teams with different people. They had Gage in the backfield so last year and the gameplan was to sellout and do whatever we could to stop him, which nobody did. I think we learned some stuff but I don’t think we’ll get anything out of it. I don’t think our kids really even think about it. They make make me nervous because they don’t get nervous.”
The emphasis in the lead up to Friday’s title game has been avoiding a slow start. In the quarterfinals the Patriots trailed Roane County 8-0 in the fourth quarter and fell behind 20-7 against Bluefield. If that happens for a third straight week, digging out of that hole seems unlikely.
“I think they’re pretty balanced,” Lilly said. “I don’t think we can come out and play flat. That’s the message. In our last two games we came out slow and our previous nine games we came out like gangbusters. We’re not going to do anything different. You make it to the state championship why would you change? Unless you’re stupid. They’re not stupid and I don’t think we are. If you watch them play, they come out of the gates fast and we can’t get down by 14 or 20 against those guys.”
The game will ultimately be a chess match. If Lilly learned anything from last year’s game, it’s how well Bartic and his staff adapt. A one-score game at halftime turned into a blowout by the end of the third quarter, largely due to adjustments the Polar Bears made at the break. The familiarity likely means both teams know each other’s tendencies.
“They adjust,” Lilly said. “The one thing they do extremely well is adjust. Last year they made an adjustment at halftime and they shut us down. It didn’t take them but a half to do it and we knew that. We knew the talent they had last year, we had to try and go into halftime with the lead. We almost did it but fell short on the 3-yard line. You’re not going to surprise them. They might have 10 games worth of film on us this year and they’ve got six from last year and they’ve got buddies and we’ve got buddies. They’re probably sitting there with 30 games of film on us and we’ve got it on them so there’s going to be no surprises.”
Lilly isn’t outmanned though. He has a coach on his staff in Kevin Grogg (Wyoming East, 1999) that already won a title in Wheeling as a head coach. He also has Scott Cuthbert, the baseball coach who has coached in the state tournament, clinching a runner-up finish in the 2014 Class AA title game.
Lilly is hoping that experience pays off and evens the playing field.
“I think Fairmont has a huge advantage,” Lilly said. “Their kids have already played with TV timeouts, they’ve already played with MetroNews and the breaks. All that stuff, our kids have never done so they’re used to it. Their kids have a routine. Because they’ve already done it they’re already used to it. Our kids are asking all these questions like if we’re spending the night and stuff like that. So (Fairmont’s) already got the answers to those questions and they don’t have to ask. I think it’s a huge advantage. We’ve tried to pick other coaches’ brains and we’ll pick Kevin’s (Grogg) brain. He’s the first coach I asked to come with me when I took the job. But I’ve said it many times – I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I’m smart enough to surround myself with people smarter than me.”
How to watch
For those unable to make the four-hour trek to Wheeling, the game will be streamed live on wvmetronews.com and on the MetroNews Facebook page. On cable services the game can be viewed in the Beckley area on Suddenlink channel 38 (AT&T SportsNet) and DirecTV channel 659.