By CHRIS EASTERLING
Independent sports editor
SUGAR CREEK TWP. Don Wilson was with his Fairless Falcons football team, just moments after their season had come to a halt with a Division V regional semifinal loss to Manchester, when he was struck by just how far it had come.
It wasn’t anything the second-year Fairless coach said, or any sort of an epiphany. Instead, it was a few simple words by one of the departing seniors in a still-grieving locker room.
“One of our seniors goes, ‘Coach, you realize we didn’t win a game our freshman year,’ ” Wilson recalled days later. ‘ “We didn’t win a freshman game or a JV game. When we were freshmen, the games that we played in, we didn’t win.’ I was like, really? I was kind of shocked.”
Not as shocked as many of the Falcons’ opponents were this year, when they did anything but lose every game they played. Instead, Fairless went out and posted arguably the greatest season in school history, going 8-4 to tie the school record for most wins in a season, earning the second playoff berth in school history and getting the program’s first playoff win.
Along the way, Fairless buried the notion it was some sort of pushover for its Principals Athletic Conference rivals. The Falcons snapped a 27-game losing streak to Manchester during the regular season with a thrilling triple-overtime win, then capped their regular season by ending a 16-game losing streak to rival Tuslaw.
“It’s one thing to believe that you can be good, it’s another thing to prove it,” Wilson said. “I think now we don’t have any doubting Thomases. Our kids understand that if we work and we put the time in, that we can compete with anybody we play. That’s a big statement for us.”
Fairless did it with an offense that set all sorts of school records, triggered by a quarterback in Hunter Wells who set all sorts of Stark County records. Wells shattered both the all-time passing record in the county, while also setting a new single-season mark.
Wells, who is committed to Youngstown State University, capped the year off by being voted Stark County’s Most Valuable Player by the coaches in the area.
“I think Hunter and the scholarship offer that he got from Youngstown State, and I think with some of the postseason awards that he and others got, proves that kids from Fairless can be noticed as well,” Wilson said. “Someone from Fairless can do that. That’s a big statement. You don’t have to be from McKinley or Massillon to be able to be looked at by the big colleges.”
But Wells, along with a strong group of seniors who helped set the tone for the Falcon rebirth the past two or three seasons, are heading out the door through graduation. That group also includes four of Fairless’ five offensive linemen, a unit which kept Wells upright much more often than not, as well as other impact players such as Zack Kelly and Zach Wyant.
Still, Wilson isn’t lamented the losses. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate what’s walking out the door as much as understanding what’s remaining in the halls.
Wilson looks around and sees a 1,000-yard rusher in Jeremy Mahaffey, along with his top two receivers in Bryant Wickham and Austin Weyandt. He sees a defense that will return top tacklers such as Weyandt and Carter Casperd, among others.
And he sees a program that seems poised to not let winning seasons and playoff appearances become instances that require the history books to be dusted off.
“We’ve got a lot of skill coming back, a ton of skill coming back,” Wilson said.
Wilson knows that all of that hinges on those players continuing to buy in to what he has imparted on them as a message from the very start. Throughout the season, throughout his two years at Fairless, he has talked about the phrase “work to win.”
Now, as Fairless looks to build on its successes this season, it once again falls on those players coming back — as well as those coming up — to put the work in throughout the offseason in order to win once the regular season begins next August.
“We’re going to challenge them in the weight room to become the best possible football player they can become,” Wilson said. “… Our kids at least know now that if they work hard in the weight room, they’ll get a lot stronger. And that will equate to being a much better football player on Friday night.”
That’s something the Falcons saw first-hand this season. And they made a little history while learning that lesson as well.
Reach Chris at 330-775-1128 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @ceasterlingINDE