Fairbanks seniors Wyatt Damron (2) and Tyler Beem celebrate a touchdown last Friday during a Divison VI playoff game at Fort Frye. The Panthers finished the season with a 7-4 record.
(Journal-Tribune photo by Sam Dillon)
The Fairbanks High School football team continued to experience a great deal of growth during the 2018 season.
The Panthers began the campaign with No. 1 quarterback Jacob Nicol on the sidelines due to a preseason injury and ended it with their first state playoff game in more than a decade.
In between, fans could see the progress the team was making.
Head coach Patrick Cotter, however, said the growth began long before his team hit the field for two-a-day practices in early August.
He said the Panthers began gearing toward the recently-completed season shortly after the 2017 campaign ended.
Cotter said the work in the weight room and conditioning sessions during the off-season months was a sign big accomplishments could be in store for the program.
That enthusiasm continued, even though the season did not begin as the team had hoped.
“After the season-opening loss (46-3) at North Union, the guys could have just said, ‘well, it’s the same old thing.’ But they just got back in the saddle and went back to work.”
Fairbanks stood at 1-2 after beating Indian Lake and falling to Greeneview before things really started to click.
The Panthers went on a four-game winning streak, which included a big road victory at West Jefferson.
The team stumbled just a bit with a three-point setback on the road at rainy West Liberty-Salem.
FHS finished the regular season on two more inclement nights with a win at Triad and a huge, signature home triumph over Mechanicsburg.
The 21-14 overtime victory over the long-time rival Indians wrapped up the regular season and propelled the Panthers into the Division VI playoffs. It also allowed them to share the Ohio Heritage Conference North Division title with West Jefferson.
Cotter said the key to the Panthers’ success was the leadership that was not only exhibited by a strong senior class, but by essentially everyone in the program.
“Once Jacob went down with his knee injury, everyone said we were going to be terrible again,” he said. “That wasn’t the case because Fairbanks football is not defined by just one person.”
This year’s senior class is the first four-year group that Cotter has guided while serving as the Panthers’ coach.
The fourth-year men suffered through a 0-10 season as freshmen and kept improving through 2-8 as sophomores, 5-5 as juniors and this year’s 7-4 slate.
“These guys (the seniors) were really leaders by the time they were sophomores,” said Cotter. “We had a couple of small senior classes along the way and these guys basically became some of our leaders.
“They always made sure we were doing things the right way.
“You can’t talk enough about them,” he said. “None of them jumped ship after going 0-10. They continued to believe in me and my coaching staff.
“You really can’t quantify what our seniors have meant to the program,” said Cotter. “They always wanted to get better and they pushed themselves, me and the entire coaching staff to do that.
“They put their stamp on our program and I will forever be thankful for them.”
Along the way, a couple of seniors in particular left their mark on the program.
Receiver Tyler Beem became the school’s all-time career leader in passes caught (163) and yardage (2,399).
Nicol, who missed a few games due to his injury, ranks third behind Kyle Warner and current FHS assistant coach Hunter Burnett in career passing yardage with 4,007.
“Kyle and Hunter were quarterbacks for all four years,” said Cotter. “Jacob basically played it for the past two seasons.”
While the Panthers had been known as a passing team during Cotter’s first three seasons, they added more of a running attack this season.
“I know we chucked it around the yard the last couple of years,” he said. “However, we really used the people we had.
“This year, Mason Cushman ran the ball for more than 600 yards and Jacob also picked up a lot of yards on the ground,” said Cotter. “Charlie (senior Scheiderer) and Riordin (freshman Stauffer) also got opportunities to carry the ball.
“Our ground game helped take pressure off our passing game,” he said. “We both passed and ran for approximately 1,800 yards, so opposing defenses discovered they couldn’t tee off on our passing.”
While Cotter said it will be tough to replace a strong senior class that also included Dylan Stage, Matt Bouic, Travis Dellinger, Mason Smith, Josh Powell, Tom Stapp, Wyatt Damron, Will Cochrane, Nate Timmons, Josh Day and Justin Wulff, he knows he has a strong nucleus coming back next season.
“We have four (Sam Rengert, Billy-Reed Bodey, Ethan Chippas and Dakota Key) guys coming back on the offensive line,” he said. “Matt (Bouic) is the only offensive lineman who is graduating.
“Mason is returning as a running back and can also play linebacker for us,” said the coach. “We’ve got Braylon Green returning at linebacker and we have several good defensive backs returning such as Gatlin Luke (six interceptions) and Trey Good.”
Cotter said the team will take its mandatory month off after concluding the season with a playoff loss at Fort Frye last Friday.
Once the down time concludes, Cotter said “it’s back in the weight room” to begin preparations for 2019.
“We have to start back as if we still have something to prove,” he said. “The Ohio Heritage Conference North Division is ridiculously difficult, but I feel we have developed into a contender.
“The guys we have returning next year have a great foundation beneath them, thanks to this year’s seniors,” said Cotter.
“This house isn’t going to fall down.”
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