Jason Woodman looks at the seniors at Fairmont State (W. Va.) and finds it hard to put into words what his first recruiting class has meant to him.

At noon (ET) Saturday in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Fairmont State, 9-0 and ranked No. 17 in the AFCA Top 25, takes on No. 3 Shepherd (8-0) in a battle for first place in the Mountain East Conference. Both teams are 8-0 in conference play.

In addition, Shepherd, the national runner-up from last season, is third in Super Region One and Fairmont is fourth. The game will be televised on American Sports Network.

“This is the reason you play college football,” Woodman said. “This setting and this atmosphere is what college football is all about.”

Quite simply, this is the biggest game for the Falcons since Woodman arrived at Fairmont State on Dec. 20, 2012. He inherited a team that went 4-6.

The way this team has grown over the last four years, starting with his first recruiting class, is the reason Woodman is almost at a loss for words explaining what they have meant to the program.

“They have been through a lot,” Woodman said. “They have gone through a lot of fire and things we put them through and stuff they heard outside the walls of our football offices.

“There is nobody I respect more than this group of seniors, staying with us and Fairmont even when there were a lot of chances for them to turn and go another direction. For them to keep fighting and do what they are doing is extremely special.”

The seniors experienced their first winning season last year when Fairmont State went 6-4. The Falcons did that by outscoring Glenville State 14-0 in the fourth quarter on the road for a 28-24 victory in the final game of the season. It was Fairmont State’s first winning season since 2011.

Playing a role in that victory was quarterback Cooper Hibbs, who threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter in that game.

Hibbs is back for his senior year and is having a solid season. He has thrown for 2,258 yards and 14 touchdowns.

“This is what we worked for in four years,” Hibbs said. “I wish it didn’t take us this long to get here. I am really proud of ourselves and excited for the game. But like coach said, we have to be focused on day-to-day operation and not just on Saturday. We have to win the game throughout the week.”

Holding each other accountable is one reason why Fairmont State has blossomed into a winning program once again.

“They made up their minds that they were tired of losing,” Woodman said. “We talked a lot about accountability since I have been here. These guys finally started figuring it out. The coaching staff I have has done a really good job of holding them to a different standard.

“Ultimately, the players had to make up their minds that they were going to trust us a little bit and do what we ask. The biggest change is they started holding themselves to a different standard and becoming more accountable.”

A great example that things had changed for Fairmont State occurred in the third game of the season at West Liberty. Once again, the Falcons outscored their opponent 14-0 in the final quarter. This time, it allowed them to slip away with a slim 21-20 victory.

“It increased our confidence a lot,” Hibbs said. “It was a good team we were playing against that night. I don’t think we played our best ball. We walked away with a smile on our face knowing we won the game, but knowing we had to go to work.”

Overcoming the early struggles to find success is why these late-season games mean a lot to the Falcons, especially the seniors.

“We have been together for so long,” Hibbs said. “Like coach said, we have been through the fire. It goes to show how close we have become. These guys are my brothers for life. Being on a football team is awesome enough. When you get to win football games like we have been doing recently, it can’t get much better than that.”

2016 Statistics Fairmont State Shepherd
Record 9-0 8-0
Points Scored 30.7 41.8
Points Allowed 12.1 16.1
Rushing Offense 133.1 135.3
Rushing Defense 92.9 89.9
Passing Offense 276.6 356.9
Passing Defense 202.1 171.1

Returning to His Alma Mater is Working Well for California (Pa.) Football Coach

Vulcan wideout Garry Brown has 14 touchdown grabs on the season.
California (PA) Athletics
Vulcan wideout Garry Brown has 14 touchdown grabs on the season.

With a new coach and a large freshmen class coming in, the 2016 seniors on the California (Pa.) football team knew it was important for everybody to get on the same page well before the first game on Sept. 10.

The Vulcans were coming off an 8-3 season and knew the talent was there for an even better season.

“As a senior class, we opened up to the coaching staff and players,” said senior wide receiver Garry Brown. “We stressed in the spring to become closer as a team.”

The transition to first-year coach Gary Dunn probably couldn’t have gone smoother.

California is 8-0 and ranked No. 6 in the AFCA Top 25. The Vulcans will play their most important home game so far this season when they take on No. 24 Edinboro, 8-1, at 1 p.m. ET Saturday. California is 6-0 in the West Division of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. Edinboro is 5-1 and tied for second in the West with Indiana (Pa.). The game will be televised on ESPN3.

“We have taken the approach from week one that we play a one-week schedule,” Dunn said. “Our total focus is on California getting better, worry about us, worry about our fundamentals and the situation we put ourselves in and try to get better every week.”

Clearly, player and coach are thinking the same way. What more could a coach ask for?

Dunn is proving you can return home. Dunn was a four-year starter at Fairmont State from 1991-1994.

“It has been great since the day I got here,” Dunn said. “It is great to be back on campus. This place is home for me. To be involved in our team and the alumni relationships, we have has been great.

“They really bought in to everything we are doing. First thing, we have really good players. We have great kids who have bought into everything we brought. They are a competitive group. They love to play football.”

One of those players is Brown. He has 967 yards receiving and 14 touchdown receptions.

“Garry is awesome,” Dunn said. “The best thing about Garry is he is the ultimate competitor. He wants to win at everything he does. He plays extremely hard and practices extremely hard. He competes at everything he does and that rubs off on some of the guys.”

Brown gives credit to his teammates.

“Without the offensive line blocking, it wouldn’t be possible for me to do what I am doing,” Brown said. “I am thankful for my teammates. We play as a team and win as a team.”

A complete teammate effort is why California is averaging 52.5 points this season.

“Our defense has scored some touchdowns,” Dunn said. “Our special teams have played phenomenal and set us up on short fields. Our defense has done a nice job of creating field position for us. Offensively, we have some talented guys, but I think it is a total team factor that has allowed us to score some points.”

It has all added up to the California playing meaningful games late in the season.

“It is very exciting for me,” Brown said. “I am excited to see how our team plays in an environment like this. We have had really good games through the season, but I feel we haven’t played our best football yet as a whole team. We have more potential. I am excited to see that the rest of the season.”

2016 Statistics Edinboro California (Pa.)
Record 8-1 8-0
Points Scored 42.7 52.5
Points Allowed 32.3 15.2
Rushing Offense 89.8 201.6
Rushing Defense 156.0 88.8
Passing Offense 359.3 278.9
Passing Defense 321.8 171.9