CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There will be a slightly different feel for Coach Steve Naternicola when Fairmont Senior takes the Appalachian Power Park field for Thursday's 4:30 p.m. Class AA high school baseball state semifinal game with Bridgeport (30-6).
Through 33 games since the season began on March 19, Naternicola has had time to figure out the difference.
"You could tell," Naternicola said. "I'd hate to put a knock on double-A, but we're used to playing triple-A and it's a difference. We played Jefferson, Hedgesville during ACTs when we didn't have four starters. We lost both games, the first one 13-12 and the second one was like 21-11."
Fairmont Senior (27-6), also known as West Fairmont and Fairmont West in reference to its location in the Marion County town, has been part of the largest class of schools in West Virginia until the 2012-13 athletic season.
The Polar Bears' first venture into Class AA hasn't paid off in terms of championship success. The football team didn't reach the 16-team playoffs, although the boys basketball team played in the state finals.
The girls basketball team lost in the state semifinals to Westside, and the wrestling team finished seventh in the Class AA-A division of the state tournament. In track, the boys finished third and the girls 10th.
The most consistent recent success has come from the baseball program, which Naternicola has guided for 24 years.
Coincidentally, Bridgeport - Fairmont Senior's Thursday opponent - has changed classes, the latest coming this season when the Indians moved to Class AA. Bridgeport was Class AAA from 2005-12. The Indians have two state baseball titles as a Class AA school (1993, 2000).
In 2010, Fairmont Senior and Bridgeport met as Class AAA schools in the semifinals with the Indians claiming a 5-0 verdict.
The Polar Bears don't have a state title during Naternicola's long tenure, but that hasn't discouraged the 59-year-old coach.
"I'm excited, you have to be," said Naternicola, whose team has been to the State Tournament nine of the last 10 years with five championship game appearances. "I'd just like to go down there and have an error-free game and play like we're capable of playing. Kids will get put into pressure situations and you don't know how they're going to react."
In its six finals appearances, Fairmont Senior has lost to Jefferson (8-4 in 2011 and 11-2 in 2005), Nitro (10-0 in five innings in 2008), Ripley (6-3 in 2004), Cabell Midland (2-1 in 2003) and Scott in 1996 (5-4). The visit in 1996 was the Polar Bears' first appearance in the State Tournament since 1974.
The Polar Bears' best shot at a title came in that 2003 loss to Cabell Midland, a decision that sticks in Naternicola's mind 10 years later.