Those who predicted a down year for the Tigers underestimated them.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
HOWLAND -- Word spread and doubters multiplied.
Graduation had taxed the Howland High football team, as it lost 24 seniors from last year.
There was no way the Tigers, who went 10-2 en route to their third straight playoff berth, could recover.
At least that's what many critics believed.
"We had a lot of doubters this year, with how much we lost," senior quarterback Brad Lockney said. "That made everybody go an extra step, and it kind of gave us an edge. It's hurtful to hear people say you have a lot of shoes to fill."
Midway through the 2004 season, Howland is proving its critics wrong.
"Good years," Howland coach Dick Angle said, "propel you to have better years."
The Tigers are 5-0, ranked fifth in Division II and drawing closer to defending their Metro Athletic Conference title.
"We're all friends, and I think that's really important -- to have a solid nucleus of friends," said senior tackle Dustin Rose, who worked to bring players together for weight-lifting and bonding sessions.
"You pull for your friend a lot more than someone you don't like."
Arguably the main reason for Howland's success this year is its offensive line, which controls the field and wears down opponents.
"Without a solid offensive line that works together well," Rose said, "you can't do anything."
Anchoring that line is the 6-foot-4, 330-pound Rose, who's drawing interest from Division I college scouts. He receives mail daily from colleges and has already been contacted by Minnesota.
"Rose is one of the best offensive tackles in the area. He moves very well," said Angle, comparing his senior's skill level to that of former Howland and current Ohio State standout Doug Datish.
On the line
In addition to Rose at right tackle, the mainstays on the line are senior left tackle Mike Baker (5-11, 250); senior center Rob Holbert (6-0, 275); junior right guard Nate Durig (6-3, 270); and sophomore left guard Matt Zimmerman (6-3, 250).
Senior tight end Jeff Elston (6-0, 230) also provides leadership there.
"It's awesome," Lockney said of the line. "It's probably one of the biggest around. I'm sure there's not too many who can match up size-wise. It gives us a little advantage."
Lance Smith also gives Howland an advantage. The junior tailback has successfully filled the vacancy left by Tony Davis, an All-Ohio selection who's now playing at Penn State.
"Lance has stepped into Tony's shoes and plus some," Rose said. "He finds the hole pretty well and hits it hard. You've seen his breakaway speed -- if we can get him past the linebackers, he's gone."
Angle added of Smith, "He's in full stride in his second step. That's a gift not a lot of people have."
Setting the defense
Graduation hurt Howland most on the defensive side, with senior tackle Chris Machuzak the only full-time returning starter from a year ago.
"Everyone said it was a rebuilding year, but we just reload," said Machuzak, who missed the first two games with a knee injury.
The defense is also supported by senior linebacker Nick Lyon, senior cornerback Marcus Johnson, junior safety Aaron Womack and Smith at end.
So what must the Tigers do in the season's second half, which begins Friday against Salem (3-2, 1-1), to maintain their high level of play?
"Stay focused -- that's the main thing," Rose said. "You can go 0-5 just as easily as 5-0. If we stay focused, we'll have a great football team."