Mentor Lake Catholic is Poland's biggest challenge yet.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
POLAND -- Bulldog coach Paul Hulea walked outside of Poland High School on Tuesday, looked up at the sunny sky and smiled.
"This is the kind of day I love to be a football coach," said Hulea.
No surprise. Life is good these days for the Bulldogs.
After come-from-behind playoff victories over West Geauga and Hubbard the past two weeks, the Bulldogs (11-1) meet Mentor Lake Catholic (10-2) at 7:30 p.m. in Friday's regional final at Mollenkopf Stadium in Warren.
This year's Bulldogs are beginning to look eerily familiar to Poland's 1999 Division III state championship team -- showing the ability to overcome mistakes, come from behind and win under pressure.
"I tell the kids that it's how they react to the bad things that determines success," Hulea said. "Any mistake in football is not fatal, and the same goes in life."
Resilient: So far, Poland has proved resilient. The Bulldogs could easily be undefeated -- they lost in a close game with Chaney, 8-3 -- or out of the playoffs. In last week's game against previously undefeated Hubbard, Poland rallied from a 14-7 deficit to beat the Eagles in overtime, despite losing senior tailback Lou DaVanzo to a thumb injury and being penalized 11 times for 116 yards.
"This is just a group that plays hard, similar to the '99 team," Hulea said. "This is a group that believes, just like the '99 team."
Lake Catholic is the Bulldogs' biggest challenge yet. Sophomore phenom Mark Petruziello has been outstanding for the Cougars. The 6-1, 180-pound quarterback rushed for 146 yards and a score and completed 15-of-20 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown in a 22-16 win over Akron Hoban last week.
"They're definitely the best team we've seen," Hulea said. "It's a big, big task just to compete with them. We'll need to jack it up and play as hard as we can."
Petruziello is an excellent athlete, similar to Canton Central Catholic quarterback Vince Gliatta, who lost to Poland earlier this year.
Qualities: "He's an excellent runner and passer and has just gotten better each week," Cougar coach Tom Lombardo said of Petruziello. "But his biggest strength is his maturity."
Lake Catholic's losses came to Cleveland Benedictine and Bedford Chanel, arguably the best team in Division V. The Cougars avenged the loss to Benedictine two weeks ago.
"I think we've taken it up a notch in the playoffs," Lombardo said. "We had some success earlier in the season and I think the kids started reading some of the stuff people said about them and found out real quick that we had some things to work on. We thought we were better than we showed and we set out to prove that."
Poland will need great play from its defense, led by linemen Gaby Dibo, Brendan Moran, Josh Bero and Jason Marchese, who defend the run well, and cornerbacks Vince Antonucci and Neil Harris, who have combined for 12 interceptions.
On offense, Sean Clayton has completed 141-of-223 passes for 1,651 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Wideout Jake Bajerski set a school record with 52 receptions. Leading rusher DaVanzo (977 yards) will play only defense this week, but fullback Jim Mitolo has picked up the slack with 583 yards rushing.
"They seem to be extremely balanced," Lombardo said of Poland. "They got a good running game, a great defense and their quarterback is progressing very well. You can't focus on one thing more than another."