Although the Howland High soccer team's record didn't show how good they are, the Tigers' play certainly did.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
HOWLAND -- At first glance, the Howland High boys soccer team can be deceiving.
Before Wednesday's game against Niles, the Tigers had just two wins and were 0-3 in the Metro Athletic Conference.
The Red Dragons, on the other hand, had won all three of their MAC games. So the safe bet was on Niles winning easily, right?
Nope. Howland jumped out to a 3-0 first-half lead and held off a late rally for a 3-2 victory at Richard Lombardo Stadium for their first win over the Red Dragons in five years.
"We stayed in the game emotionally the whole night," Howland coach George Stevens. "That was the big difference. There were no letdowns.
"Of course it helps when you have a 3-0 lead."
Strong start: The Tigers struck quickly, scoring two goals in the first eight minutes. Three minutes into the game, senior striker Jennings Francis sent a kick under a diving Brett Gatta. Five minutes later, junior striker Elliot Lonsdale followed a rebound off Jennings' hands to make it 2-0.
Late in the half, junior midfielder Sam Mann fired the ball into the left side of the goal to make it 3-0.
It was a big win for Howland (3-4-2, 1-3 MAC), whose four losses have come by five goals.
"It was nice to get a win," Stevens said. "Our kids' attitudes have been great this year and we haven't let the losses get us down."
Mang gets pair: Niles struck back in the second half with two goals by freshman Nathan Mang. The first came on a penalty kick at the 18:43 mark that seemed to energize the Dragons. Then, with just over 10 minutes remaining, Mang scored on a direct kick after Francis was yellow-carded for a takedown.
"We made some changes in the second half, adding more firepower up top that we lacked in the first half," Niles coach Rob Merlo said. "But Howland came out aggressive, with a lot of spirit."
Niles (6-2-2, 3-1) out-shot Howland 20-18 and had plenty of chances in the second half. But senior defender Kyle Phillips cleared out countless shots and goalkeeper Jonathan Airhart came up with key saves for the Tigers.
"Our defense stayed strong toward the end," Phillips said. "I thought we hustled real well and we played real good offensively. We played smart tonight instead of just blasting away at the goal."
Diving stop: Airhart finished with eight saves and Niles' Gatta had 10. Airhart made a diving stop on Eric Faith's penalty kick at the end of the first half that may have sealed the game.
"We had plenty of opportunities tonight," Merlo said. "I told the guys at halftime that three goals wasn't going to be enough -- but it was. I think [Howland] kind of packed it in defensively when they got their third goal. If we make that missed penalty kick, we might have come away with a win."
Not that Merlo was surprised that the game was so close. Howland always plays his team tough, he said.
"When it's Howland and Niles, you know it's going to be close," Merlo said.
"I think it's one of Trumbull County's best rivalries," he said.