Fairbanks senior Gatlin Luke (21) drills a West Liberty-Salem ball carrier. The Panthers finished the season with a 6-4 record. (Journal-Tribune photo by Tim Miller)
The Ohio high school football state playoffs begin this evening without one local team appearing in a repeat performance.
The Fairbanks Panthers earned a post-season berth after the 2018 regular season, but just missed out on a repeat this fall.
Fairbanks (6-4) finished ninth in the final Ohio High School Athletic Association computer ratings for Region 24 in Division VI.
The top eight teams in each region earned playoff berths.
Despite the disappointment of missing out on the post-season, FHS head coach Patrick Cotter feels the campaign was another very solid performance.
“I thought we were very successful,” said Cotter. “We lost some games early and late in the season, but did a lot of great things.”
The Panthers (who finished 7-4 a year ago) got off to a rocky start with setbacks at the hands of North Union and Indian Lake.
Some teams may have folded, but that’s not in the Panthers’ DNA.
They proceeded to rip off six consecutive victories, including a 26-20 triumph over state-ranked and playoff-bound West Liberty-Salem.
“Those six victories got us into the thick of things as far as the Ohio Heritage Conference championship and making the playoffs,” said Cotter. “I think that winning streak was one of the best in central Ohio.”
The Panthers went into the season having to replace 18 seniors who played key roles during last year’s playoff squad.
Once the ship was righted after the slow start, it did not appear as though FHS missed a beat.
“Our older players were great leaders and a number of young guys got a lot of reps this year,” said Cotter.
Just what did the Panther boss like the most about his squad?
“We played as a team all year,” he said. “’From the seniors down to the freshmen, this was one of the closest-knit teams I’ve ever seen. There were no class divides and we grew as a team.”
If there was one thing that concerned the coach throughout the campaign, it was consistency.
“There were games during which we’d have a great quarter or half and then struggle later on,” said Cotter. “However, I thought we got better with that as the season progressed.”
The highlight of the season came during the upset over West Liberty-Salem.
It was the 500th Panther football game during the program’s 50th anniversary.
“The guys went out and were ready to play that night,” said Cotter. “The 200 football alumni we had in the end zone showed them what it means to everyone who has ever put on a Panther uniform.”
The Fairbanks players did not learn they had missed the playoffs until they returned to the school after last Friday night’s game at West Jefferson.
Cotter informed the team of the news at that point.
“The looks on their faces were ones of disappointment,” he said. “That just showed me how much they cared about getting into the playoffs.”
Now, the task will turn toward the 2020 campaign.
“We just need to keep going where we’re going,” said Cotter. “We’ve grown over the past few years and have put ourselves in a comfortable position where good things won’t be foreign to us going ahead.
“We just have to stay hungry.”
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