ST. PAULS — The Fairmont High School football team entered the season as the favorites to win the Three Rivers Conference, but limped out to an 0-3 start, leaving more questions than answers heading into conference play.
Two months later, the Golden Tornadoes have reeled off seven wins in a row, including Friday night’s 42-21 victory at St. Pauls that sets up a winner-take-all game at South Columbus next week for the outright conference title.
“Things weren’t looking real good, but we’ve moved some people around and got them in the right places,” said Fairmont coach Mark Heil. “We’re where we want to be.”
Fairmont quarterback Julius Caulder accounted for five touchdowns in the win, with four coming through the air and one on the ground. The Golden Tornadoes (7-3, 6-0 TRC) outscored the Bulldogs (6-4, 4-2 TRC) 22-7 in the second half to seal the win, racking up 388 yards of total offense.
Despite the rough start to the season, Fairmont has its offense rolling and its defense providing a stingy resistance that finished with two takeaways in Friday’s game and limited the Bulldogs’ rushing attack to 62 yards.
“The defense is battling,” Heil said. “We’re not very big, but they battle. We got tested in the secondary and I was pretty proud of what we did.”
St. Pauls trimmed the lead to 28-21 before the end of the third quarter on a 26-yard touchdown catch by Cole Humphrey, but Fairmont answered with the next 14 points to put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter behind the strong running of Halijah McLean and Julius Caulder. McLean finished with 103 rushing yards and a touchdown for the Golden Tornadoes.
“We have an offensive football team,” Heil said. “Halijah ran really great tonight. The key for us is to keep scraping and bandaging that defense together to keep us in the game.”
Jarique Moore had six receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns of 36 and 47 yards for Fairmont. He also snagged an interception late in the fourth quarter. Jordan Waters had six catches for 76 yards and a touchdown and Derrick Arnette hauled in five catches for 46 and a score.
St. Pauls quarterback Noah Wheeler threw three touchdown passes, but finished with a pair of interceptions. Mike Barnes logged five receptions for 81 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Humphrey had four catches for 79 yards and a score.
Barnes gave the Bulldogs an early lead with a 39-yard touchdown catch, but Fairmont answered when Moore and Waters scored on a pair of screen passes to give Fairmont its first lead at 14-7 with 2:35 left in the first quarter.
Barnes tied the game with his second touchdown catch late in the first half, but Fairmont took the lead for good on the ensuing possession, scoring on 4th-and-18 when the ball sailed over a Bulldogs defender into the hands of Derrick Arnette for a 19-yard score. Fairmont carried a 20-14 lead into the break and McLean capped a six-minute drive to start the second half with an 8-yard touchdown run.
Missed opportunities and a slew of penalties plagued the Bulldogs throughout the night, in particularly three dropped touchdown passes and penalties that kept drives alive for the Golden Tornadoes.
“The biggest thing was the penalties killed us,” said St. Pauls coach Ernest King. “We dropped a lot of balls in the second half and we got real undisciplined. You can’t give a great ball club like that extra opportunities.”
After being in the position to fight for a conference title, King is hoping his squad will learn from their mistakes moving forward.
“We have to regroup from this and be more disciplined,” he said. “We’ll bounce back and get ready for Whiteville. Our goal was to win the conference championship, but we made it hard on ourselves. (Fairmont) knows how to win and we’re still learning how to win.”
For Heil, the message throughout this week is simple: Conference championship.
“What else is there to say?,” Heil said. “We just have to keep getting better and practicing hard. South Columbus runs right at you, so we have a big test on Friday night. We beat them twice last year, so you know they’re going to be ready to play.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached on Twitter @RoddBaxley.