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Keeping up with Class warfare

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fairmont Senior and Bridgeport staged a dramatic battle Thursday in the opening game of the state baseball tournament, with the Polar Bears pulling out a 9-6, 10-inning win in the Class AA semifinals.

No, that wasn't a typo. I wasn't missing an "A." Double-A if you want it spelled out, double-"eh" if you want the Canadian version.

Double, double, double, double.

For the Indians, it's not as unusual. They've bobbed up and down between classifications so much over the years, I need somebody to tell me what class they're in now. Shoot, I still remember those guys winning the 1979 football championship, 20-7 over St. Albans.

"We were staying 'triple' for eight straight years," said Bridgeport coach Robert Shields. "Just the same thing. It's a shame one team's got to end up on the losing side of this, because this was a heck of a ballgame."

OK, so we've seen the Indians play classification hopscotch. But the Polar Bears in AA? That's as foreign as bologna in a pepperoni roll. It seems weirder still that both of Fairmont's Marion County rivals, East Fairmont and North Marion, also took the enrollment-based relegation.

But it seems nobody up Interstate 79 was blindsided about the blue-clad Polar Bears leaving triple-A for the first time. In fact, it wasn't even close - Fairmont's enrollment of 685 students in grades 9-12 was nearly 100 below the 777 of classification-leading Berkeley Springs.

"I knew Fairmont Senior was [dropping a class]," said Polar Bears coach Steve Naternicola. "I believe there are 15 schools that have larger attendance than us in double-A, so we've lost quite a few students."

But the Polar Bears have outworked their county rivals, and a few others, on the playing fields.

They missed the football playoffs by a single point, but beat Bridgeport in the boys basketball semifinals. They finished tied for third in the boys side of the state track meet, compared to 14th in AAA in 2012.

Ask Scott's Will Shaffer about those Bears and Indians. Shaffer was the defending AA track champion in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs, but he only won the 800, the shortest of his three races. On the opening night, he was frustrated by Fairmont Senior's Nick Trefz in the 3,200; Bridgeport's Abe Merinar got Shaffer in the 1,600 the next morning.

Two weeks later, the Polar Bears arrived for their 10th state baseball tournament in 11 years, dating to the dying years of Watt Powell Park. Who exactly was going to deny them entry in the AA field?

And get this: After fending off Bridgeport, Fairmont has yet to lose to a West Virginia double-A school. You can look it up - three losses came in Myrtle Beach, S.C., to out-of-state teams, two more in a wacky doubleheader at Hedgesville (hey, aren't the Eagles here today?) and a loss to Morgantown.

This Double-A stuff is easy. Right, Coach Naternicola?

Not really. Not when you go 10 innings with a familiar team in the other dugout.

"You hate to have to play a conference team," he said. "I've known Robert Shields for, gosh, I don't know how many years, and we're very good friends. It's tough playing a Big Ten team; I'd much rather seen that in the championship."

In Class AA Region 1, the Marion County schools are aligned with those of the Mid- and Upper Ohio Valley, which presents a budding regional rivalry with the Magnolia Bl ...

Oh, wait. In another jarring reclassification, coach Dave Cisar's Blue Eagles tumbled to Class A. And they are back here today, taking on Notre Dame of Clarksburg in the 10 a.m. game.

Think about it. That proud school from the New Martinsville riverfront produced state football champions in 1964 and 2010 and runners-up on 1972, 1981, 1992, 1993 and 2008. Basketball was a bit more decorated, with championship banners raised in 1961, 2000 and 2003.

And in baseball, the Blue Eagles showed up in Charleston often, winning in 1989 and 2006.

But, like Fairmont, that school had been plunging in enrollment over the years. When the SSAC released its tally for the 2012-16 realignment, Magnolia was credited with 421 students, 13 below AA-low Summers County.

The Blue Eagles weren't the only ones invading single-A. The fall of Tug Valley may have changed the landscape in that classification's boys basketball for some time. The Panthers broke the Catholic school's 11-year hold on that division, beating Charleston Catholic 58-41 in the title game.

Reclassification happens in just about every state, but it seems to have more of an impact here. If you want to age yourself, raise your hand if you remember Herbert Hoover as a Class AAA team.

Ah, the Huskies have done fine just where they are, with their 7-3 thriller over Independence the latest chapter. Hunter White gave us the dramatic ending, belting a game-winning grand slam in front of a charged-up crowd at Appalachian Power Park.

No matter how many A's you play with, that's what it's all about.

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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