But the Bulldogs will be hard-pressed to upend arch-rival Canfield.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
In mid-August, Canfield High football coach Mike Pavlansky sat in the stands to watch Poland's first scrimmage of the year, against Rayen.
"Rayen pretty much did what they wanted to in the first half," said Pavlansky, whose team defeated Rayen 23-8 in week 1. "Poland looked like a team trying to find itself."
Not much changed over the next few weeks. After losing running back Brandon Beachum to Mooney in the offseason, the Bulldogs struggled with turnovers in opening losses to Louisville and Hubbard.
They've been perfect since. What happened?
"I think we just made a commitment to play better," said Poland coach Mark Brungard. "The way we played against Hubbard, I knew we had potential. If we hadn't turned the ball over, we win that game.
Created a buzz
"Coming off that loss, we still had a great amount of hope."
The Bulldogs (7-2, 6-0) cruised past Wilson and Struthers before shocking the area with a 20-14 win over Niles. (It's still the Red Dragons' only loss.) They clinched a share of the Metro Athletic Conference title with last week's 33-6 win over Campbell, their first MAC title since an outright crown in 2001.
With a win on the road against Canfield on Friday, the Bulldogs can win the league outright and make their first playoff appearance since 2002.
"They're totally different now," said Pavlansky. "They know who they are. They run the football, they run play-action passes and they're physical up front.
"They're the best football team we've played this year."
Canfield, meanwhile, is in a similar situation this week. The Cardinals are eighth in the Division II, Region 7 computer ratings and need a victory to make the playoffs.
"There's nothing bigger than when we play our rival," said Pavlansky. "We wait all year long for this. We know what's out. If we win, everything else will take care of itself."
The Cardinals (7-2, 5-1) struggled with turnovers and surrendering big plays in their two losses (Canton South and Niles) and are battling the injury bug this week. The biggest is with senior running back Sean Baker, who could miss the game with a knee injury. Canfield was down to its fourth-string running back last week.
Poland lost to the Cardinals 27-7 last year and the Cardinals eventually lost to Toledo Central Catholic in the Div. II state final. Canfield lost a lot of its top players to graduation and Brungard knows his team matches up better with the Cardinals this season.
"Most definitely," he said. "But they're still very formidable. They give you a lot of pressure on defense and they're very quick. Offensively, they're very talented up front and their quarterbacks are very capable of managing a good game. They've got good running backs and they've got big-play threats.
"Plus, they've got a very talented coaching staff. They're very sound and you have to out-execute them. I look for a very competitive game."
On the bus ride home from last Friday's win, Brungard made a promise to himself that he wouldn't get too stressed this week.
"I'm going to have fun," he said. "It's just a game. You coach all season to be in a game like this, so you have to enjoy it.
"This is always the biggest week for our kids. It's Ohio State-Michigan for them. And there couldn't be more eggs in the basket for what's at stake."