Gallery by Heather Belcher
Coal City – Polar Bears thrive in the cold. That wasn’t the case Friday.
Led by a defense and specials teams unit that recovered two fumbles and interpreted two passes, No. 2 Independence became the first Class AA team to defeat No. 7 Fairmont Senior since the 2019 semifinals, ousting the visiting Polar Bears 42-7 Friday evening in the double-A quarterfinals in Coal City.
Independence advances to the Class AA semifinal for the second consecutive season where it will host North Marion on a date to be determined.
The victory for the Patriots comes after Fairmont ended their season each of the last two years including a 21-12 defeat in last year’s title game.
While the Patriot offense found a groove in the second quarter it was the special teams and defense that had the Indy faithful buzzing on a 25-degree evening.
The Polar Bears came up empty on field goal attempts of 39 and 48 yards in the first quarter and fumbled their first two kickoff returns of the third quarter, both of which led to Indy touchdowns.
“We work pretty hard on that kickoff team,” Indy head coach John H. Lilly said. “We were real disappointed because we gave up two touchdown returns early in the year for the amount of time we work on it. But we’ve got a lot of seniors and guys that don’t start but could start for some people and those special teams is where – actually I’ll sum this up. We feel like we’re a good special teams but they have great special teams and if we could just match them somehow, we could probably pull this out.”
Before the Indy special teams unit could blow the game open, the offense found a groove to establish breathing room, in part because of special teams.
Setting up shop at the Fairmont 29 following a Polar Bear punt in the second quarter, Indy running back Judah Price needed just one play to find pay dirt, zigging 29-yards for first blood.
A Jaden Cheriza return to the Indy 24 on the ensuing kickoff threatened to steal the momentum but a Logan Isom sack put the visitors in third- and fourth-and-16 situations. Electing to go for it, the Polar Bears turned the ball over on downs. From there Indy all-stater Cyrus Goodson took charge.
Held to one catch in last year’s matchup, the 6-foot-3 senior drew a pass interference on the first play of the drive and three plays later won again, hauling in a 43-yard bomb from QB Trey Bowers to make it a 12-0 game. It was a part of a stellar first half that saw the receiver haul in four passes for 109 yards and draw two pass interference penalties.
“The o-line just did their thing and they kept pressing me,” Goodson said. “I know I think I can get by anybody in the state. Coach gave me some opportunities and I capitalized on them and I think we came out with a big win tonight.”
“Being able to complete deep passes opened up the offense for them,” Fairmont head coach Nick Bartic said. “When they needed to make a play they made it. They were prepared and they were hungry and that’s how they played. Ultimately they made more plays than us and we didn’t make plays when we needed to.”
Fairmont made a break on Indy’s next drive when Cheriza intercepted a Bowers heave to the end zone on first-and-10 from the Fairmont 22 but Price ended Fairmont’s hopes of scoring with an interception on the penultimate play of the half.
The avalanche ensued out of the break with Germaine Lewis and Trey Longwell both fumbling on consecutive return attempts, resulting in touchdown rushes of one and three yards by Price to make it 28-0.
“The start of both halves we didn’t take advantage of opportunities and gave them opportunities which they took advantage of,” Bartic said.
With the Polar Bears on their last leg, Price delivered the knockout blow.
Facing third-and-19 following a Braxton McKinney sack, Fairmont QB Brody Whitehair threw deep to his left into the arms of Price who took his second interception of the evening back 81 yards to make it 34-0 at the 2:32 mark of the third quarter.
Price, who broke the regular season scoring record with 300 points, pushed his season total to 340 following the return, and now sits 20 away from breaking the combined (regular season and playoffs) scoring record of 359.
“Me and Tyler (Linkswiler) probably had the most important jobs staying in the middle of the field because they like to throw it to the middle of the field,” Price said. “That interception late in the second half, I was guarding my man and saw a guy running a post and I speed turned and it just fell right in my pocket. On the pick six, I jumped that perfectly. He sailed it right up to the out route and I honestly think the receiver didn’t run the right route and I read it perfectly and took it back.”
Fairmont avoided the shutout when Whitehair found Cheriza for a four-yard score in the fourth but the game was already in hand. For good measure Bowers added an exclamation point with a 43-yard scoring run, ensuring there would be a running clock the remainder of the game.
It was the lone bright spot of the night for a Fairmont offense which struggled against Indy’s defense. Whitehair was 10-of-24 passing on the evening, throwing for 92 yards.
“It’s not the score we thought it would be,” Lilly said. “We knew it was going to be a dog fight. We just got a couple of good breaks and we capitalized off of them. That’s the difference in the game. We got momentum and they’re a great team with a great coaching staff and the ball bounced our way.”
Goodson finished with five catches for 131 yards and a touchdown while Price led Indy’s ground attack with 23 carries for 137 yards and three offensive touchdowns in addition to his two interceptions. Bowers threw for 130 yards and a score on five completions, adding 82 yards and another score on 15 carries.
Dylan Ours led Fairmont in rushing and receiving yards with 83 on six carries and 29 on two catches.
The Polar Bears finish their season at 8-4 while Indy improves to 11-0.
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