The Bulldogs could clinch the crown next week against Niles.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
HOWLAND -- Ashley's stuffed bulldog finally witnessed a Metro Athletic Conference championship.
The Poland High boys soccer team made it possible.
Seniors Lenny Liguore and P.J. Booth scored goals, and visiting Poland held off Howland's late surge for a 2-1 victory Thursday.
By winning, the Bulldogs (10-0-2, 7-0-1) clinched part of the MAC championship and can win it outright by beating Canfield or Niles next week.
"This is what we've worked for the whole season," Booth said. "If we lost tonight, we would have given them [Howland] a share. We knew they were coming out hard, so we had to come out hard too."
Before the game, Poland players gathered together and hoisted the stuffed bulldog, which sat on a sideline water cooler and faced the field for the next 80 minutes.
"My daughter donated that to the team three years ago after we went 1-10-4 that first season," said Poland's Chris Labatte, the fourth-year coach, of 7-year-old Ashley.
"She gave it to the soccer team, thinking we needed it for good luck," he added. "It's been sitting on the sidelines every game for the past three years."
Thursday, it was present as Poland clinched part of its first MAC title since 1996, Labatte said.
"The work these guys have put in since last October, when they lost in the district semifinals [to Mooney], has gotten them where they are now," Labatte said. "They dedicated themselves [to soccer]."
Poland beat Howland 1-0 in their first meeting this season, and another close game was expected Thursday between the third and fourth seeds, respectively, in the upcoming Division II sectional tournament.
"Howland vs. Poland and Canfield vs. Poland -- those are just traditional games where it's going to be close," Labatte said. "You could be having an 0-15 year, and you play each other at the end and it'd be 1-0."
Liguore struck first for Poland when he scored on a left-footed free kick just outside the penalty box with 11 minutes, 23 seconds remaining in the first half.
"He's got a very powerful shot," Labatte said, "and when he gets a hold of it and you're in the way, it's normally going through you."
The Bulldogs seemed to secure the victory on Booth's penalty kick at 21:05 of the second half after Stephen Gavolas was tripped in the box.
"Steve made a real nice move to cut between two defenders," Labatte said. "If the guy hadn't fouled him, he was going to get a clean shot."
Junior Tim Lee set up a dramatic ending at 19:18 when his goal brought the Tigers to within 2-1.
"There was a period of time when the kids were emotionally down, but that brought them back," Howland coach George Stevens said. "They played hard the rest of the game."
Howland (7-4-1, 5-2-1), which won the MAC last season, made several strong rushes in the final minutes only to be denied.