The Bulldogs won their 23rd straight league game.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
POLAND -- Has turning 40 ever been sweeter?
Several hours after the Ohio High School Athletic Association stripped Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary's NBA-caliber player of his eligibility, Poland High basketball coach Ken Grisdale celebrated a milestone birthday by watching his undefeated Bulldogs win their 23rd-consecutive Metro Athletic Conference game.
Poland's 65-47 victory over Howland Friday clinched a tie for the league title.
"Poland is a strong team and they really deserved to win tonight -- they kept their composure and played well," Howland coach Bernhard Bohla said.
The Bulldogs (15-0, 8-0 MAC) will own their third-straight crown outright with a win over Niles or Struthers or another Canfield league loss.
Grisdale's team, who last year saw its season end with a state-semifinal loss to Akron SV-SM, is poised to be the top seed in Boardman's Division II tournament that opens in three weeks.
Friday's game was nip-and-tuck until the final seven minutes when Poland outscored the Tigers, 20-4, mostly on free throws. Senior point guard Neil Harris canned eight while sophomore forward Chad Fender had six as Poland pulled away.
"You hope to have an opportunity to coach a special player and I think he is," said Grisdale of Fender. "Chad's special, but those guys around him are truly special as well."
Strong first half
Grisdale credited the Tigers for playing like Bulldogs in the first half.
"What was neat about tonight [was that] we learned what it's like to be other people playing us," Grisdale said. "They did what we do to people -- we turned the ball over 10 times which led to some good shots and they shot lights out.
"We found out what it was like to play us because we're a spurt team and sometimes we get it rolling and I feel sorry for the other team," Grisdale said.
Howland junior Justin Byler sizzled during the first half, at one point scoring 19 consecutive points for the Tigers (8-7, 4-3).
"He's been real consistent all year with his shooting," said Bohla of Byler. "The kids played their hearts out. We learned a lot tonight -- Poland is a good team and they just made us stronger."
Byler has great start
Byler scored 21 of his 23 points before halftime as the Tigers led, 30-29. Five came on 3-pointers.
"I think he ran out of gas," Grisdale said. "He didn't have a lot off the dribble in the second half, but we had hands in his face."
Grisdale said Howland's 22-15 lead was the largest deficit the Bulldogs have faced this season.
"We started feeling a little sorry for ourselves until we came in here to regroup," Grisdale said. "We didn't think they would come out and be as hot as they were and we knew that our defense would eventually wear them down."
Bohla said that happened almost immediately after halftime.
"In the whole third period and the beginning of the fourth, that's when Poland was just taking it to us," Bohla said. "They were freeing up their shooters so we played tighter."
Slew of fouls
That led to a slew of fouls that turned the game into a rout.
"They started slowing up their offense and with only two fouls on the board, we had to do what we could to stop the clock," Bohla said. "They were smart -- they didn't give the ball to the guy we were trying to foul and they made their free throws."
Grisdale credited Fender's coolness.
"I think he's the best clutch player in the area," Grisdale said.
Harris and Fender led the Bulldogs with 18 points and 17 points, respectively. Seniors Eric Fender scored 15 and Jonathan Habuda 10.