Prep baseball: First year in Class AA, Polar Bears seek first state title
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.
"I remember that year," Naternicola said. "We had a sophomore playing first base, they bunted four times and he froze all four times. Years later, you can sit back and laugh about it, but for those seniors who went out that year and last year, I feel for the kid. They've worked hard for four years to make it down there.
"It's tough on me too. I hate to see the seniors go out that way."
The Polar Bears have five seniors on this year's team with Matt Robbins, Brandon Plivelich, Fletcher Devaul, Michael Parker and Andrew Strand.
Devaul plays shortstop and pitches. He's the team's leading hitter with a .511 average and only four strikeouts in 90 at bats. He also has a 6-2 record and a 3.16 earned run average with 63 strikeouts in 42 innings.
Robbins, who starts at second base and plays shortstop when Robbins pitches, is batting .369 with 21 RBI and 17 stolen bases. He has a 5-2 pitching record with 65 strikeouts in 43 innings and a 0.84 ERA. Strand has a 6-0 record with 56 strikeouts in 43 innings and a 0.81 ERA.
Bridgeport's State Tournament berth is its third in four years, following a six-year drought.
The Indians lost 6-0 in the 2010 Class AAA finals to Nitro in 2010 and 1-0 in the 2004 Class AA semifinals to Weir.
Bridgeport has nine seniors on its roster, including two that played in last year's 5-1 Class AAA semifinal loss to eventual state champion Princeton.
Cullin Cutright and Troy Anderson started as juniors. They combined to go 2-for-5 in the semis.
This season, Cutright is batting .325 with 28 runs and 24 RBI, while Anderson leads the Indians in RBI (47) and home runs (5) and has a .355 batting average.
Bridgeport's pitching staff includes five hurlers with at least four wins apiece, led by Anthony Bonamico (5-1), Josh Boggio (5-1) and Brent Rhodes (5-2).
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4837.