By Greg Carey
FAIRMONT — Nick Bartic knows well the quality of Bridgeport’s football program.
Evidently, Bartic also knows how to lead his Fairmont Senior program past the Indians.
The second-year FSHS head coach watched his team control Thursday’s contest against the Tribe from start to finish, as the Polar Bears got a near flawless performance from quarterback Connor Neal to ease past Bridgeport, 45-14, at East-West Stadium.
“Anytime you can beat those guys three times in a row, that’s impressive,” Bartic said. “That doesn’t happen often with them and our guys are aware of that.
“Our offense was on point and about as good as it could be this evening. [Connor] put in one of the best performances we’ve seen around here and we have a pretty deep quarterback fraternity here.”
The Class AA No. 2 Polar Bears forced a three-and-out on the opening series, before putting together a 13 play, 82-yard drive that took over seven minutes and ended with Neal throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to Rhett Heston.
Frankie Smith knocked home the point-after kick to give the Polar Bears a 7-0 lead at the 2:47 mark of the first quarter.
Neal completed 9-of-11 passes on the drive, while one of the two running plays called for Gage Michael to gain the necessary yard on a fourth and short situation.
The No. 3 Indians went three-and-out on their second series as well, setting the stage for FSHS to take a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter on Neal’s 6-yard TD pass to Jake Pitman. Prior to the scoring play, Neal and Pitman had connected on passes of 18 and 32 yards to help set up the second touchdown.
“Defensively, we couldn’t get a pass rush,” Bridgeport coach John Cole said. “We knew that could be an issue. That didn’t help the secondary out.
“Being unable to move the football, especially in the first quarter and through the second half, put our defense in a bad spot. When you have a team like that, you have to be able to wear them down a little bit.”
Trailing by two touchdowns, the Tribe responded with an 18 play drive that featured a pair of fourth down conversions and was finished off by Trey Pancake’s 1-yard TD run. The Indians’ third series of the game took 9:38 off the second quarter clock, and when Evan Ogden drilled the PAT, they were trailing just 14-7 with 1:04 to play in the first half.
Starting the final series of the first half at their own 27-yard line, the Polar Bears marched 64 yards in 57 seconds, with Neal completing consecutive passes of 19 and 17 yards to Camden Longwell for the key plays.
It allowed Smith to make a 26-yard field goal as the first half clock expired, sending Senior to the intermission with a
“We practice the two-minute drill all the time,” Bartic said. “Our guys executed it and it was phenomenal.”
The Polar Bears started the second half with the ball and needed only two plays from scrimmage to add to their lead. That came when Neal found Pitman for a 57-yard TD pass, upping the FSHS lead to 24-7 just 29 seconds into the third quarter.
Bridgeport turned it over on downs at the Polar Bears’ 42 with 8:28 left in the third, and 38 seconds later, the Indians faced a 31-7 deficit following Heston’s 40-yard touchdown run.
Heston, seldom used in the backfield since his days playing youth football, stepped up in a big way with Caleb Walker and Breeden Gilbert out injured.
“The coaches did a real good job of spreading out the defense and making the wide receivers spread out on the ball so we could clear those outside linebackers and overhangs out,” Heston said. “It really opened up the holes and it gave us a lot of one back power where the linemen could just do their jobs and get out there.”
Jake Bowen’s 73-yard TD run with 6:55 left in the third allowed the Tribe to pull to within 31-14, but that was as close as it got.
Neal threw his third touchdown of the game to Pitman, this one a 17-yard strike, to give the Polar Bears a 38-14 lead with 4:52 left in the third.
“It was a fun game and whenever we’re having fun, we play twice as good,” Neal said. “We like to go out and have fun every week.”
Kieshawn Cottingham’s 34-yard TD run featured several nifty cutbacks and capped off the scoring with 9:02 remaining.
Neal finished 21-of-26 passing with 312 yards and four touchdowns.