CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Steve Naternicola's luck at the state baseball tournament may be changing for the better if Thursday evening was any indication.
The veteran Fairmont Senior coach, whose teams went 0 for 7 in Class AAA championship games, saw his team rally twice - scoring the go-ahead run on a wild pitch in the top of the 10th inning then holding on in the bottom of the frame - to finally put away rival Bridgeport 9-6 in a topsy-turvy AA semifinal at Appalachian Power Park.
The Polar Bears (28-6), second in the Gazette's state rankings, will play in the championship game at 10 a.m. Saturday against No. 1 Herbert Hoover, which defeated No. 4 Independence 7-3 on Hunter White's walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the seventh in Thursday's late semifinal.
Fairmont has reached the state tournament 10 of the past 11 seasons in AAA with five runner-up finishes since 2003 before moving down to AA this season.
No. 3 Bridgeport (30-7) made it to Charleston three of the last four years, losing in the AAA semis last season.
Fairmont defeated Bridgeport 5-4 after plating a run in the bottom of the seventh in their only regular-season meeting in April, and Thursday's meeting didn't lack for drama either as the last four innings featured two ties and two lead changes.
Polar Bears junior Johnny Kesling led off the top of the 10th with a single to center field, and was replaced by freshman pinch-runner Austin Kuhn. Fairmont Senior junior Ryder Skarzinski doubled to left field to put runners at second and third with none out, and Kuhn came home on a pitch in the dirt that kicked away from Bridgeport catcher A.C. Caldera.
Fairmont sophomore No. 8 hitter Jayce Riley added a two-out, run-scoring double and junior Bailey Mohr, who bats ninth, singled in another run for a 9-6 advantage.
That proved to be enough as Polar Bears senior reliever Fletcher DeVaul retired Indians senior Cullin Cutright on a flyout to center field to start the bottom of the 10th then walked Bridgeport senior Troy Anderson. After that, DeVaul induced Indians junior Tyler Skidmore to fly to center then struck out senior Tyler Marks to end the game.
That touched off a wild celebration between home plate and the pitcher's mound. Fairmont catcher Gage Hannah and DeVaul met halfway and bumped chests as the rest of the team flooded in to enjoy the moment.
"It says something about our program and our kids,'' Naternicola said of the hard-fought victory. "We've been to Myrtle Beach [S.C.], Cocoa Beach [Fla.] and Winter Haven [Fla.], we go all over to the place to play pretty good competition.''
Naternicola also hopes that his new postseason routine may lead to some good karma in the title game.