MORGANTOWN — The offseason so far for Fairmont Senior Football has been a change of pace in more ways than one. The polar bears have traded playing through the cold, sleet and snow on the pitch for training in sweltering heat that can feel like over 100 degrees.
That was the case on Wednesday, but the uptrend was worth it. The other change in pace was who they played against – a variety of multi-state schools, many of which the Polar Bears players had never seen before.
Fairmont Senior competed in West Virginia University’s 7-on-7 shootout and Big Man Camp Wednesday, sharing the Mountaineer’s facilities with 33 teams from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio.
Fairmont Senior faced teams like Martinsburg, Musselman, Hurricane and Weir in a 7-on-7. The quartet’s most recent opponent for Fairmont Senior was Musselman, whom the Polar Bears faced in September 2020.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Mark Sampson, Polar Bears offensive coordinator, of the various teams in attendance. “Even in our regular season schedule, we try to get new teams every year, good teams in the state, and seeing more of them up here, it’s fun.”
“It definitely has a feel for everyone,” said Dylan Ours of Fairmont Sr. “You’re up against some of the best of the best, and you’re up against some of the average players, you get a feel for everyone.”
The annual event was another step in Fairmont Senior’s off-season as they continue to expand their activities. The Polar Bears went to Mountain Ridge High in Maryland for a 7-on-7 tournament earlier this month, and Wednesday’s WVU shootout was another opportunity for development.
“The biggest thing is just getting out here and going up against some great competition,” Sampson said. “We see teams like Martinsburg and other talented teams up here. It’s a good opportunity to see how we’re doing in a competitive environment and the other important thing is just to get out of here healthy.”
The return to live competition was especially important for the younger polar bears. Graduated seniors like Evan Dennison and Kayson Nealy have vacated spots in the ranks of Fairmont Senior fullbacks and fullbacks, and for the defending champions it’s “the next man.”
“We have a lot of young people, especially in the skill positions,” said Jayden Cheriza of Fairmont Senior. “So for these 7v7 players, especially against good teams, it’s good to not only learn the plays that we’re playing, but also what it’s like to play against good competition and to know what you can do against good competition.”
Likewise, quarterback is a place where the Polar Bears are expecting sophomore Brody Whitehair to be the signal caller after starting two games as a freshman before bowing out with a knee injury.
Whitehair showed his potential against Bridgeport — another 7-on-7 at the event — throwing for 266 yards and three touchdowns, and this offseason will be a crucial opportunity for the sophomore slinger to develop even further.
“It is great [experience] For the skill kids, we have to replace a few receivers and the quarterback,” Sampson said. “Brody started in two games last season before losing to injury. It’s also really good for him to be working on tweaking the timing with the new receivers and the old receivers so they can have that chemistry together.”
So Fairmont Sr. went for function over flair in Wednesday’s shootout, using the time to work on what they will be releasing in the fall.
“We’re sticking to our basic offensive,” Sampson said. “Some teams will put in special games just for 7v7, we don’t do any of that, we just want to get out of here and get better at the things that we’re going to do in the regular season.”
While youth development is certainly a focus of any off-season, it also prepares returnees to take on diverse roles. For juniors like Ours and Cheriza, who already have plenty of starting experience in big games, their rise as leaders was evident on Wednesday.
The pair were among the most vocal in the Bears 7-on-7 crew, speaking to their teammates between most games.
“I love speaking, especially on defense,” Cheriza said. “I always felt like I was an aspiring personality. I feel like the young people feed on that and we play better when someone’s out there yelling, like, ‘Yo, it’s alright.’ Not being negative, being positive and making sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing in a positive way.”
“They have the older children in our practices, we help them out,” Ours said. “It’s progress, it takes time, but they come to work ready and collect everything as soon as it’s needed.”
Progress is the name of the game. As Fairmont Senior progresses through the summer months and prepares for another title defense, the game continues.
“They did a good job,” Sampson said. “We all had a great offseason together. We’ve had great numbers in the weight room all winter and all summer. We’re starting to come together, things like that help us build their team chemistry, it’s been a lot of fun.”