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In 2020, golf and cross country grabbed the headlines

Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Coaches Josh Blowe and Bill Ack provide instructions to their team at the state golf championships in Wheeling.
The wave of runners begins the class AA cross-country championship meet in Ona.

By Chapin Jewell

Tribune Correspondent

High school golf and cross country are listed as fall sports on the WVSSAC calendar. As such,  when it comes to print space and headlines, they go head to head, not just with each other, but with the colossus that is football and also volleyball.  

In 2020 especially, every effort was made to cover golf and cross country to the fullest extent possible in the News Tribune.  Not only do the student-athletes deserve the coverage for their efforts, but in both cases this season, major stories developed in each sport.  

By major stories, of course we’re talking about the fact that Keyser golf won the region championship and advanced to and competed in the WVSSAC state golf championship in Wheeling. By major stories, of course we’re talking about the fact that Frankfort’s boys’ cross country team not only competed in, but won the West Virginia class AA cross-country state championship held in Ona.

Yes, right smack in the middle of a well-publicized and successful football season for Keyser and Frankfort. Yes, right smack in the middle of a very competitive season between Keyser and Frankfort volleyball, particularly against each other, both golf and cross country rose up to become huge stories in Mineral County.  Rising up as well, was a great deal of support from both ends of the county for the other’s respective teams.

In terms of coverage, golf has a decided advantage in that the competitive season opens earlier than all other sports. Golf season opens at the same time of the other fall sports, but actual competition can begin the next day, unlike the other sports that require several weeks of practice time first.  For this reason, golf matches were up and running weeks before anything else was happening.

Consider that when it comes to golf in Mineral County, Keyser and Frankfort are involved together in the vast majority of their matches. Where Keyser is, so too is Frankfort and vice versa.  Consider also that covering golf involves riding around in a golf cart in the middle of the nature’s beauty, being able to pick and choose which holes and where to go for the best pictures and best action so speak.

It doesn’t hurt that Polish Pines, the host course for Mineral County, was always accommodating. It doesn’t hurt that Keyser golf coach Josh Blowe and Frankfort golf coach Bill Cessna are two of the nicest guys you’ll meet and very, very accommodating as well. It doesn’t hurt that Keyser and Frankfort are never more friendly towards each other than on the golf course.

But other things were at play as well. Let’s face it, high school sports in Mineral County ended in the aftermath of the epic boys’ basketball sectional final between Keyser and Frankfort in March. Nothing else happened in high school sport, in terms of actual competition, for a full six months, until those high school golf matches started up in August. Six months, no high school sports.  

Enter golf. Yes, it was the guinea pig so to speak. There was a rocky moment at first, but things really kicked into gear and there were a lot of golf matches in such a short period of time.  It felt so good to see actual interscholastic contests be a thing again, and the weather generally cooperated.

As the matches continued several times a week, one thing became very clear, Keyser was good, real good. As the Golden Tornado racked up win after win in match play, everything was building to the all-important regional tournament to be held at Cacapon State Park and hosted by Berkeley Springs. To Keyser’s benefit, the Black and Gold had played that course a few times and were very familiar with it.

Might this be the year that Keyser could advance to the state tournament? All signs pointed this possibility, but still, the match would have to be played.

To add drama to the situation, as match play began at the regional tournament that day, Keyser was not playing their best, getting off to the direct opposite of a hot start. As the day progressed, however, play for the Black and Gold improved, so much so, that when the dust settled at the end of the day, Keyser laid claim to the regional championship, and had punched their ticket to the state golf tournament in Wheeling.

As news of Keyser’s qualification for the state tournament hit the masses, a groundswell of excitement and support came their way. Former Keyser players with state tournament experience offered up their memories and support. Well wishes poured in from all over and soon all of Mineral County was tuned in to the happenings of Keyser golf and their first-year head coach Josh Blowe.

Despite a less than desirable performance on day one in Wheeling, Keyser entered play on the second day within striking distance, sitting just seven strokes behind second place North Marion, and eight strokes behind first place Shady Spring. Play improved greatly for the Tornado on day two, but it would be too little too late. At the conclusion of the day, Shady Spring held on to the top spot to claim the state championship, North Marion retained the second spot, Robert C. Byrd slid into third, and Keyser would finish fourth.

With a four-man tournament roster consisting of two seniors and two freshmen, two of which were brothers, the Black and Gold had created quite a buzz and provided a great deal of momentum for the Keyser golf program moving forward.  The buzz surrounding the program is likely to continue into next year, and we were happy to be along for the ride, telling the story as it needed told.

Now came cross country. After a third-place finish at the state cross-country championships in 2019, the Frankfort boys were poised for a top finish in 2020. The Falcon roster had it all, experienced upperclassmen, talented youngsters, and among those talented youngsters, one of the best runners in the state, sophomore Garrett Ferguson, all returning.

It would of course, take tremendous dedication in the pandemic year of 2020, for the highly touted Falcons to stay at the top of their game. While COVID-restrictions may have affected traditional, sanctioned training somewhat, the reality is that this dedicated group had continued to train and train hard, after all, there was nothing that prevented people for going out to run on their own or with friends.

COVID may have had a major impact on the schedule, with several meets cancelled to include those involving travel and an exposure to top-level talent, Frankfort absolutely made the most of the opportunities they were given, with success after success in the meets they participated in.

The big question relating to their chances of winning a state championship of course revolved around how they competed in 2020 against Fairmont Senior, a regional opponent and the two-time class AA state champion. Leading up to the state tournament, Frankfort had in fact outperformed Fairmont Senior at every turn and in every race.  

In fact, the Falcons had outperformed everybody in class AA, so much so that the running website had projected the Falcons as a full 20-point favorite over Fairmont Senior to win the class AA state championship.

Enter COVID, and the associated drama and shattering of dreams the pandemic has brought. Just days before the state cross country meet was to be held came shocking and heartbreaking news. Garrett Ferguson, the Falcons’ top runner, was forced to undergo quarantine as the result of a possible school exposure. As such, the talented sophomore would be unable to participate in the state championship meet.

On paper, the Falcons were still a slim favorite, but their 20-point projected advantage had shrunk to closer to five points, there simply was no margin for error. In addition, there was the emotional impact of not having Ferguson, the team’s leader, by their side.

To Ferguson’s credit, he found a way to still lead the team despite his physical absence. To the team’s credit, rather than allowing the circumstances to hinder their performance, they instead allowed it to inspire them. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the day of the state championship meet.

As the first five runners crossed the finish line, there was a sense of angst, knowing that Garrett Ferguson would have been in that mix. Then it happened, the Blue Wave of Frankfort runners coming in as a group. In sixth place was Xander Shoemake, in seventh place Anthony Sanders, in eight place Peyton Slider.

A short time later in 18th and 19th place came Christian Cimaglia and Landyn Sell.  Kent Niland would finish in 22nd place and Aiden Sensabaugh 49th.

Adding to the drama of missing Ferguson was the fact that Fairmont Senior ended up overperforming on the day. They would need to run the literal race of their lives to get the job done, and to a man they did. Still there was a wait, and the crowd assembled in Ona of coaches and parent, joined by a crowd in Mineral County watching online, awaited the results.

When official word finally came, the Falcons had edged Fairmont Senior 55-49 to claim what would be only the school’s third team state championship, and the first in cross-country.  A massive celebration involving a humongous fire truck led parade and gathering at the school awaited them on their return home to Short Gap.

In a year that was so crazy.  In a year in which fans and more importantly student athletes missed out on so much, golf and cross-country provided Mineral County sports’ fans with much excitement and two great storylines to celebrate.  In both cases, the happenings of this year will pay positive dividends as we hopefully put 2020 behind us and enter a more promising 2021.